Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Flood by Jackie Smith

The Flood by Jackie Smith, directed by Laurence Strangio.  Critical Stages and Finucane and Smith at The Street, August 15-25, 2012.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
August 21

Because this play is sincere in its intention, genuine in its conception, directed and acted with clarity, and its subject is of great importance, I almost feel that I have no right to criticise.

Yet something about the play points me at a word that I shudder to use, perhaps even more so when I read the write-up about the author and director in the program.  It is “unsophisticated”.

The point about what Smith describes in her Playwright’s Notes as “a terrible reality that faces too many people, city folk and country folk” comes through strongly as the younger sister Catherine (Caroline Lee) pushes her elder sister Dorothy (Maude Davey) to explain why their mother Janet (Shirley Cattunar), whom Dorothy lives with, won’t accept her visit after twenty two years away from the family.

The truth about their father’s abuse of his daughters and his “death” and the role Dorothy played in protecting Catherine becomes apparent bit by bit, but I think the structure of the play is the source of my feeling that theatrically things didn’t quite ring true.

Reading again from her Notes, Smith says “The play explores the interface between the monstrous and the mundane – a hallmark of the vast internal world of Gothic literature – and the genuine horror when we realise that the monstrous can be part of our every day, imbedded deep within our society”.  This heavy-weight thinking has led her into the play’s step by step revelation of the mystery at its core becoming too close to a Gothic melodrama. 

Fortunately the performances by all three actors, and direction which made sure that characters’ intentions (in the Stanislavsky sense) were clearly established, covered up the ‘mystery melodrama’ underlay, and strong performances were achieved – most especially, I thought, by Davey in reacting to Dorothy’s memories of what her father had done, and finally telling Catherine that he was not dead. 

This was in the second last scene, and produced a powerful moment as Lee said simply “He’s dead!”

I would have been satisfied if the play had ended at that point, instead of bringing back the mother for a messy ending about her going to a nursing home.  Or maybe just the magpies carolling the morning, the mother going back to her decoupage as if nothing had changed and the two sisters silently watching her.  We would have understood what they would be thinking about what they would have to do with her.  Fade to blackout and curtain call.

Though I can see (even though I wonder a little about the language) why Cattunar, “in 2009 ... won universal acclaim for her role as the mother ... and since that time has scarcely had a day off” and I can agree that Smith may have “turned heads from the very beginning” of her writing, “so particularly Australian – with language often so sparse, dry, humorous and disturbing”, because these were two strong points in this production, yet I must conclude that The Flood is not a great play, but is certainly worthwhile seeing for its theme.