Sunday, October 2, 2011

MP by Alana Valentine

MP by Alana Valentine. Commissioned by The Street Theatre, directed by Caroline Stacey, designed by Imogen Keen. At The Street October 1-15, 2011

Reviewed by Frank McKone

There is something Shakespearean about Alana Valentine’s latest play. I’m thinking about Kate in The Taming of the Shrew and, on the more political level, of Hermione in The Winter’s Tale. I’m also thinking of the style of performance, which some would call ‘representational’, with its switching between inter-character speech and direct address to the audience – the soliloquies which Shakespeare made famous. And I’m thinking about the setting at the seat of central government and the issue of the nature of government. Is something rotten in the state of representative democracy in Canberra?

It also felt to me, as a citizen of Canberra, like what citizens of London, the seat of English government, must have felt in Shakespeare’s day. So many people – including politicians and bureaucrats I noted among the audience – responded so spontaneously to the experiences of the characters on stage that I’m sure this is how those in the political know in London would have laughed while watching the machinations play out.

Groundlings, like me, would have been empathising with the personalities of the politician Ava Turner, her supportive partner Raymond, her ambitious adviser Nadia, her terribly disabled son Cliff, her political party nemesis Drew, the astute journalist Tracey, the head of department Bonnie, and the couple Gary and Laura Robbins whose disabled daughter was raped and committed suicide. Watching how they all treated each other was a bit like watching Othello, except that the play is a political comedy with a kind of happy ending.

In other words, this is a play well worth watching for its content, plot and characters.

But, of course, a good script must be presented well – and this one is.

Geraldine Turner, billed as ‘starring’ in the role of Ava, fits the bill. She plays the twists and turns of emotion and power-play in Ava’s intimate and public relations with focus and strength of acting which holds the play together until the final surprising moment.

Her skill and standing as an actor might have dominated the production when working with a largely local cast with less experience, but it was clear that Leah Baulch (Nadia), Stephen Barker (Gary Robbins / Raymond), Soren Jensen (Cliff / Drew) and Andrea Close (Canberra Critics’ Circle Award 2007) in the multiple roles of Laura Robbins, Bonnie, Tracey, a waitress and Madeleine (another constituent from Ava’s electorate whose appearance concludes the play) had all been welded together to form a team of equals. This is to the credit, of course, of an expert director in Caroline Stacey, whose understanding of the style needed was also made clear in the technical aspects of the acting, movement, set design, lighting (by Nick Merrylees) and sound (by Liberty Kerr).

The set design – shaky towers of balancing plates representing a Member of Parliament’s massive correspondence load – was complemented by the sounds of smashing crockery and made a surprising but very effective metaphor for the fragility of the political life, and of life in general. Simple in form but imaginative, the design and directing allowed the themes of the play to stand out against the background of complex day-to-day government and the personal interplay of the people involved.

Author Alana Valentine, on opening night, took a curtain call with the cast and thoroughly deserved the applause. If this is the standard we can expect from the Street Theatre’s commissioning program in future, then Canberra may at last achieve the permanent local professional theatre company it has long deserved.