Review: Ninety ~ theatre notes

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Review: Ninety

Ninety by Joanna Murray-Smith, directed by Simon Phillips. Designed by Andrew Bellchambers, lighting design by Nick Schlieper. With Melinda Butel and Kim Gyngell. Melbourne Thetare Company @ the Fairfax Studio, Victorian Arts Centre, until October 4.

Joanna Murray-Smith’s latest play, Ninety, is a short portrait of a failed marriage. Isabel, an art restorer, has begged ninety minutes from her former husband (and now hugely successful film star) William, before he flies off to Paris to marry another woman.

Isabel (Melinda Butel) wants William (Kim Gyngell) back, and in particular wants to remind him about a past he is wholly denying. And in the hour and a half he grants her, they relive the highs and bitter lows of their relationship.

There are two ways of reading this play, which in fact seems rather like two different plays jammed unsatisfactorily together. One is to take it at face value, as an affirmation of the unbreakable bonds forged through the shared joys and griefs of marriage. The two narrate their history (employing the obligatory device of flashbacks), stripping away the defensive aggression with which they greet each other to reach a mutual understanding of what they have shared.

The other interpretation is more interesting, perhaps reaching towards the forensic incision of Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes From a Marriage (which Murray-Smith recently adapted). But without Bergman’s excoriating compassion and emotional precision, this subtext sits uneasily inside the first, and never integrates into a fertile ambiguity.

In this second reading, Ninety is an unrelievedly bleak portrayal of contemporary marriage. Neither character seems to have an inner life: their personalities are expressed, like the murderer in American Psycho, solely in terms of material possessions and social status.

A surface wit elides what is at times a breath-taking cynicism in the characters, in their relationships to each other, to themselves and to art. They talk about love all the time, but what they call love is merely narcissistic self-reflection: Isabel even claims at one point that women only fall in love in response to a man’s desire.

The single breach in their mutual self-absorption is their daughter, Bea. The play shifts gear in the final half hour, when we discover that she is dead. And in the end, the only thing these two people have in common is their grief and loss.

Murray-Smith’s grasp of writerly form is never certain enough to sustain the acuteness required to make this interpretation wholly work: the script’s toughnesses are undermined by the play’s constant reassurances to the audience that nothing too uncomfortable is going to happen. The promise of the emotional pornography of self-revelation is, in the end, what drives the drama.

The switch in the play is engineered clunkily by the plot device of the dead child, and its dramatic climax feels unearned. There are a couple of wonderful monologues where the script lifts into dramatic expressiveness, but for the most part the language settles for reportage rather than gestic action, which undermines its ironies. Too often one feels the cynical jokes are to be taken at face value.

Simon Phillips gives Ninety an elegant production in the round which features strong performances from both actors. Gyngell in particular is compelling. The minimal set consists of a revolve which imperceptibly moves one and a half turns – like a clock hand going through an hour and a half - during the course of the show. It revealed when it reached my side that the painting Isobel is restoring is a bad copy of Jan van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Marriage.

Which maybe favours the first reading. I’m still not sure; perhaps both are intended, but are not sufficiently integrated to generate the energy of true contradiction. In the end, I didn’t enjoy thinking about this play, for many reasons. But mostly because it left me feeling empty and rather depressed; it looks into the abyss of human self-deception without any of the spiritual sharpening that makes doing so worthwhile.

A shorter version of this review appeared in yesterday’s Australian.


Anonymous said...

I wouldn't review her work, Alison.

Although I'm sure everything you say is perfectly justified - your irritation with the woman, not the play, shines through.

It's a little depressing.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Anon - quite frankly, I challenge you to find one comment that is about the person and not the work. My problem has never been with the person - I don't know her personally. She might be a wholly charming woman. My problem has always been with the writing and the ideas in the writing. I seek to be fair - I think she's a considerable cut above writers like Rayson and Williamson, and say so. But that doesn't mean I have to like the work.

I'm a bit sick of those who seek to smear my motives, frankly. You might not agree with what I say, as is your prerogative, but if you seek to argue with it, please argue with what I actually said, not with what you think I said or why you think I said it, or why other people think I said what I said. And it might be nice to put your name to your opinions, as I do. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Okay, I didn’t say you made comments about ‘the person’.

I didn’t say you ‘have to like the work’ - as that would be absurd.

I didn’t ‘seek to smear your motives’, nor was I arguing with ‘what I think you said' (??) - and I don’t need you to reaffirm my right to disagree (but gee, thanks!)

I was referring to contempt in your review which I think is obvious in the ‘obligatory’ use of flashbacks, and the ‘promise of the emotional pornography of self-revelation’ driving the drama - big deal, what holy theatre have you been going to? And her ‘grasp of writerly form’ - come on, that’s having a go!

I don’t know, or care about Joanna Murray-Smith - and the last thing I want to see is another dissection of a crap marriage - and you articulate problems I've always had with her work - but I think you are nitpicking ever so slightly.

I suppose ‘contempt’ isn’t really quantifiable so full notations and footnotes are beyond me - but it’s the vibe, Alison, the vibe.

(As is my right - if you want to be a public arbiter of the arts, good on you, but I don't. And I'm a little bit scared of you, Croggers!)

Alison Croggon said...

Oh, if you could see what a pussycat I really am...

My apologies for scaring you. But since it's been very publicy claimed that the only reason I don't like Murray-Smith's work is because I'm jealous of her success on my husband's behalf, perhaps you might understand my peevishness. The vibe is that this kind of theatre does nothing for me, rather I find its effect is vampiricially dis-couraging, and it makes ME feel depressed. If you want to see what I like, read my review of Blackbird, another ninety minute two hander produced by the MTC. Now, that's writing.

Alison Croggon said...

PS Re: "Okay, I didn’t say you made comments about ‘the person’" - is a "woman" different from a person? You do claim I am "irritated" with the "woman" rather than the play.

(And apologies for the spam post above from the splendidly named Busby CEO Challenge - I seem to have temporarily lost the ability to get rid of it.)

Anonymous said...

I saw Ninety last night and found it pretty disappointing. The dead child was such a cheap trick. I really thought there was about to be some sort of illumination but –– nothing. It made me feel depressed too, such narcissistic characters, no savagery, no honesty and in the end it was all so bloody painful and artificial.

I also loved Blackbird and I enjoy this blogspot but do agree with Anon. Alison is scary, however I get the impression she writes from her heart and that it is never peevishness that fuels her critique.


Anonymous said...

Yes, I concede the word 'woman' was misjudged.

I wan't implying you had made comments about the actual woman, as that would be bizarre. My point is your irritation (or whatever) seems to be aimed at her entire body of work - at her 'grasp of writerly form'.

Perhaps that's fair enough, and perhaps not.

And Blackbird is in another league altogether. The bestest.

Alison Croggon said...

At least my kids aren't scared of me. Sometimes I wish they were. Maybe you could all talk to them and make them understand what a termagant I really am? They just laugh.

To be as general as possible: form - writerly or otherwise - interests me deeply. It seems to me that anyone interested in art is dealing with the problem of form, from the most strictly measured sonnet or ghazal to the scrawled almost-texts of Cy Twombly's early paintings, from the deeply worked spare poetic of Pinter to Barker's anarchic expressiveness to Cage's games of chance... I can't think of any exceptions. If I have a prejudice, it is that I think art is about its materiality, the sounds and rhythms and textures of whatever it's made of, its emotional and intellectual shapeliness. Aesthetic is a word that derives from the Greek word for perception, and refers to sensuous perception ... And as an audience member, a reader, a looker or watcher (does one "watch" visual art?) those are the things I respond to, and where I trip if I don't perceive a sense of an artist working it, attending to it, exploring it, finding it, making or unmaking it... I might get it wrong, I might be particularly thick one night or whatever, but form, in its widest sense, is always what I'm primarily attending to when I encounter a work of art. And a play is a written form like any other piece of literary art.

Anonymous said...

I've never seen a Murray-Smith play before. For the first hour I was mildly entertained. The two characters, especially the male, seemed to be cliches and the dialogue seemed shallow and not that interesting. However there was some humour and there were a few good one-liners, so it was enjoyable enough. Then came the dead child revelation. Was that supposed to make us see some depth and meaning in what came before, give a new and profound perspective on the discussion? If so, it didn't do that for me. I guess it did allay some puzzlement as to why these two were bothering to talk at all. But for me, it didn't tie up any loose ends, bring things together, make what had been said emotionally affecting, etc.. It just seemed like something that was tacked on.

Afterwards, I was thinking about a play I saw a year or two ago involving the grief two parents feel over the loss of a child, Ross Mueller's "Constructions of the Human Heart". That was moving and emotionally affecting. I'm not sure if "Ninety" was supposed to be a moving play centered on the grief of two people over the loss of a child but if it was, I didn't think it was remotely as good as "Constructions of the Human Heart".

naive theatre goer

Alison Croggon said...

Hi NTG - good to know you're not sure either... I thought of Mueller's play too; it's a pertinent comparison. And a very good play indeed.

Alison Croggon said...

For those who might be interested, I just looked up my review of Mueller's Construction of the Human Heart. Where I talk a lot about...form.

Anonymous said...

Form you, Crog.

Anonymous said...

1. FWIW, I love to read what you say whether I agree with it or not. I expect that you will provide a new perspective or insight - and I don't think I've ever been disappointed.

2. FWIW, I've never thought of you as frightening. I'm only frightened of getting the wrong end of the stick and appearing foolish in what I say.

3. Am I the only one who thinks the premise is absurd? I'm as prepared as the next person to suspend disbelief - but, really! Can I have 90 minutes to pitch you the reasons to return to the relationship! Like selling soap. And, assuming that she was sufficiently out of touch with reality to make the pitch on the eve of his next marriage, under what circumstances would he accept?

Do people buy this?!

Although I found some parts hilarious, and other parts riveting, what kept gnawing at me was, how does she imagine this playing out? What does she hope to accomplish? If I can persuade you that there were good times, you'll cancel your forthcoming marriage. Relationship reconstruction based on pure reason!

Anonymous said...


We haven't met in the real world, but i have put my name on this, it is something I'd say to you in person if we strayed onto the topic because I am a defender of brave critique in Australian Theatre (of which you are undoubtedly at the helm).

you wrote this the year before last on your site-

"In the mutual loathing stakes, Joanna Murray-Smith and I, who are exact contemporaries, go back a long way. For around 15 years, she has considered me a bitch and I have thought her a dill. I hated her plays, she hated my criticism. She called herself post-feminist and berated feminism for her problems: I called myself a feminist and thought her a privileged whinger. Even our hair colour expresses our disagreements: she's blonde, I'm brunette..."

This goes on to uncaracteristically (your words)commend "Female" whole heartedly. It also exposes an EXACT personal reaction to Murray Smith as well as her playwrighting. You're allowed to have this. But for the record you editorially don't "imagine she's charming" in the least, you have publicly exposed your "history" in another review.

You invalidated your (otherwise fascinating) line of thought on ninety more when you denied any personal feelings towards this playwright than if you had (like in the "Female" review) fessed up with them.

Brave critique isn't agendaless. It simply can't be, I felt let down a bit when you supposed that it was for you in this instance. I'm not a huge advocate of disclosure of personal predjudice (even in an ironic way) in reviews anyway- it can't be argued that it forwards the cause of your thoughts and opinions and can be argued that it hinders them- the DISCOSURE that is.

Mitigating your thoughts about Smith in your response to your reader's comments was a shame to read for me because I've read all the other things you've written too.


Alison Croggon said...

Hi Melissa - of course critique isn't agenda-less. I have never claimed that mine is; the reverse, rather.

I am kind of sorry that nobody seems to have noticed that in that Greer piece I make as much fun of myself as I do of Joanna Murray-Smith. I'm the zonked bitch, remember. And that underneath that light-heartedness - which, I confess, was written merely to entertain readers (and why not?) - there is a serious agenda, ie, the very different approaches we have towards feminism (which are revealed in the links) which are, you must admit, pertinent to the play under discussion. It might have been ill-advised, given that there seems to have been a number of people who have read it with an irony bypass, but hey. Them's the breaks.

Ms TN's differences with JMS are aesthetic and intellectual, and a matter of public debate, not private stuff. We have never spoken one word to each other in person. I have never met her, and she has never met me. How could it be "personal"? I just don't enjoy her work, and I disagree hotly with many things she has written. I swear on my life that if I ever walk out of a Murray-Smith play with my heart singing, I will tell you. It's possible: one of the frustrating aspects of her work is that it has moments when you see how well she can write. And I am ever hopeful.

Anonymous said...

A poem.
By me.

There once was a poet named Crog,
Who had all her readers agog.
She wrote this review:
‘Joanna - Fuck you!
That play of yours sure is a dog.’

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Me...Is it wrong of me to laugh? The Pierian Springs are sure running hot here. But you got something wrong: it was the Williamson play that I called a dog. I mean, when I want to avoid nuance, I do so without apology...

Anonymous said...

ode to "me"

there once was a lonely upstart
who hated a critic of art
he used all of his wit
to reduce her to shit
but all he could produce was a fart

Anonymous said...

Speaking of eating shit... that poetic little exchange reminds me of graffiti in the Menzies building dunnies at Monash Uni. The content varied pretty much according to the floor you were on. (Philosophical stuff on floor 9, literary stuff on 7/8 & so on.)

On the French floor I once read: "vis a vis, and wees is wee, and never the twain shall meet."

Under it, in a different hand, was written: "Unless I piss in your face."

P.S. Not being a dill has never been sine qua non when it comes to being a friend of 'Croggers'. (Desirable, praps, but not a deal breaker.)

Alison Croggon said...

My, how the tone falls in the wee hours. And me on my way to bed. Children, could you stop hitting each other with spades for a moment while I point you to the comments policy? (It's a mere click away in the sidebar and clearly states that ad hominem abuse is not welcome here.) Said comments would be removed if blogger were not malfunctioning and not permitting me to do so. And I'll remind you as well that TN is a place for debate about theatre. Different opinions are welcome here, but it is kind of telling that those who are defending Joanna Murray-Smith are not discussing her plays at all, but rather appear to think that any criticism of Murray-Smith's ouevre can only stem from some deep personal flaw in the critic. It might be more to the point to argue the observations made in the actual review, perhaps? That is, after all, what debate is all about.

Anonymous said...

Troubador started it...

Anonymous said...

Hi Alison,

apologies to you and "me".

I concede that I failed to live up to my own standards. That's sad as (past history shows) they are pretty low.

I'm sending myself to my room immediately and will write a hundred times that from now on:

I will not lower the tone of the thread...
I will not lower the tone of the thread etc...

A forlorn hope perhaps but I will try.

Alison Croggon said...

OK, stop crying Anon. Troubador, you can come out of the quiet corner when you've finished your lines.

I found the delete button at last and have removed the spam, but have left the other posts up for the no doubt profound edification of readers. But I will delete any further gratuitous name calling. And would like to slip out of my school marm cossie into something more comfortable.

Anonymous said...

I salute you Alison. I thought the play was a total waste of time. What was the point? Two unpleasant people and, as seems per usual for JMS, a woman who cannot get on with her life. We walked out before the dead child but it was so obvious...

I wondered if Isabel was meant to be bi-polar which at least would have explained the quick switches in personality.


Jane Kunstler - yes that is my real name.

Kat Harper said...

Hi there Alison,

I just had to watch Ninety for an assignment for senior Drama for school, my task is to write an essay about "was ninety a good representation of Realism?" to me, i found this play utter bullshit, the female character's voice in my opinion was rather melodramatic, i didnt enjoy it at all, there were a few moments when it was slightly funny.

I was wondering if you at all would be able to help me find all of the points in the play that aren't realistic so i can write about them and not fail so bad for going against what my teachers think. Everyone else is saying in my class that the play was a good representation of realism, i however disagree and wish to challenge what the teachers say, even if it will get me a D. If you could help me out please email me at

Thanks so much