Thursday, February 21, 2013

Our Lady by the Beach over the Sea written and directed by Joe Woodward

Our Lady by the Beach over the Sea written and directed by Joe Woodward.  Shadow House Pits at the Courtyard Studio, Canberra Theatre Centre, February 20 – March 2, 2013.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
20 February

This is a new play of the many shadows of regret.  Through a number of his productions, Woodward has created his own genre of imagist theatre, where characters’ psychological shadows – in the Jungian sense – become physically represented.  What interests him is the interplay between the ordinary “external reality” and the fantasy “internal reality” as people live at once in the present and the past.

The central character, Jay, an old man apparently in a nursing home, is confronted – perhaps in either or both realities – with the woman who, at the age of 16, was for Jay the goddess of youth, Hebe.  Her real name is Em, perhaps Emma, and it appears in the final scene that she has sent her daughter, Nim, to find Jay – and to tell him that she, Em, will kill him.

I interpret this to mean that because Jay failed to turn his youthful infatuation into a permanent ideal love relationship, his memory – now obsessive fantasy – of what should have been, will be, in ordinary language, “the death of him”.

In disciplined and skilled performances, Em and Jay are played as externally realistic characters by Trish Kelly and Oliver Baudert, while Kat Bramston plays the fantasy “Young Em” as well as the externally real Nim.  Then there are a male shadow and a female shadow, Lycius and Lamia, from the poem Lamia by John Keats, who are also named Lucas and Mia, played by Andrew Eddy and Lucy Matthews.

The mood of this piece, rather more than in previous Woodward works, is melancholy – perfectly appropriate for Jay’s fixation on Keats’ poetry, since Keats’ source for the story of Lycius and Lamia was Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy.

For me there is an odd, though interesting, disjunction between the intention of imagist theatre – to build an identification in the audience’s feelings with those of the characters – with the reality that the images become mysteries that demand intellectual interpretation by the audience: thus preventing the viewer from responding emotionally while they try to work out what’s going on and what it all means.

I couldn’t understand much of the beginning scene or two, and only towards the very end found myself working out the probable story of Jay’s mental life – too late to identify with him, despite my being of his age (and even going through my own version of infatuation with a goddess in the nineteen sixties as he did – even on the occasional beach, indeed!)

Part of the problem is, I think – based on my own experiments in the past – that the imagist technique is rather cartoon-like in effect.  It’s often better for creating humorous effects, as in fact happened on a few occasions in this show, but too easily becomes tedious or confusing.

The only escape I can suggest is to write heightened poetic language for all the characters throughout the play, to provide an emotional “spine” to hang the living body on.  In Our Lady by the Beach over the Sea this was only done when Keats’ or Yeats’ poetry was being quoted, although the device of the video of the surf on the beach, reflected in the mirrors behind the action, worked in a limited way.  If the surf had changed at significant times from calm to storm, the image would have had more effect.

The music, by Damien Foley, was also quite effective in this way at times, but needed a lot more variety to push the drama along – like a good movie soundtrack, rather than an accompaniment.

So my conclusion is that Woodward has made an original and serious work in Our Lady by the Beach over the Sea, interesting for its ideas and imagist concept, but not entirely successful as a unified theatrical experience for the audience.

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