Ninety by Joanna Murray-Smith. Directed by Sandra Bates, Ensemble Theatre, Sydney, February 4 – April 3, 2010. Reviewed Tuesday March 9.
The three theatres I visited on this trip to Sydney have quite different atmospheres and clientele.
B Sharp means what it says. Be ready to be bluntly confronted Downstairs at Belvoir St by pointed expertise.
Wharf 2 is like a well-bred show pony. Its audiences expect nothing less than the professional best, and all the jumps are cleared.
The Ensemble …? Well, it’s North Shore, suspended over gently lapping sailing boat water, moored in a bay of quietude. It’s about humanity, intimacy, warmth of feeling, and sense of local community. It still belongs to its audience as it has since Hayes Gordon set up Australia’s first theatre-in-the-round in the Kirribilli boatshed just 50 years ago.
Kate Raison and Brian Meegan could have performed Ninety as technically well in a bigger space, but even in Wharf 2 they would not have seemingly looked us directly in the eyes and we would not have seen our reflections in theirs. If Ninety were done in a proscenium, end-on or even side-on theatre like Belvoir Downstairs, it would seem no better than a slick David Williamson comedy from the days before his community conferencing trilogy.
In the round, even in the three-quarters round as The Ensemble is nowadays, Joanna Murray-Smith’s ninety minutes of post-ex-marital experience is quite rivetting. It’s the right play for this theatre.
It’s always a good drama exercise to place an external limitation on what may happen. There is no plot to Ninety except for Isabel’s intention. She knows her ex-husband William so much better than the young actress he is about to marry, from the time of her inveigling him into her bed in the beginning, through their young couple financial struggles, his becoming successful and finally rich-and-famous, with the memories joyful and tragic of their only daughter who died so young.
Isabel has phoned him and persuaded William to see her before he is off to Paris for the wedding – just as she had phoned him in the beginning. He can only afford 90 minutes of his time. The play lasts exactly 90 minutes. Will Isabel break through to William’s real feelings in this short time? Will he change his mind about marrying again? Does she really expect him to come back to her? Would she really want him to?
Of course, I cannot reveal such mysteries. But I can say that, though the details of these two people’s lives are so different from my own, almost everything that was spoken and left unspoken rang silent bells within me. If one can say there is no plot in this play, there is a fiendish plot at work to make us in the audience recognise ourselves as we are and as we have been. If you are up for it, there is still time to make a booking. 02 9929 0644 or www.ensemble.com.au