Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Splinter by Hilary Bell

The Splinter by Hilary Bell.  Sydney Theatre Company directed by Sarah Goodes at Wharf 1, August 10 – September 15, 2012.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
August 18

Helen Thomson as Mother       Erik Thomson as Father

The title has a symbolic meaning, though not made explicit as far as I could see in this piece of imagist theatre.  I take it to mean that if a splinter is lost from a finished piece of timber, and it is later recovered, the original piece can never be made good again.

The plot is simple.  A four year-old girl disappears from her bedroom.  Nothing can be found to explain what has happened to her.  Nine months later, now aged 5, she returns, alone.  She will not talk.  There is no information about what has happened, except that a doctor says she has not been injured or violated.

But the original family of three can never be made good again.  Laura’s mother (Helen Thomson) and father (Erik Thomson) have irrevocably changed because of having to survive their daughter’s loss, and change again as they try to cope with her re-appearance.

The drama is an exploration of ghostly imagery derived from the doubts the parents imagine – about the new Laura, whom they are not sure they recognise, and about each other as they find themselves telling each other truths that they had previously kept to themselves to protect the other’s feelings, and as they blame each other for what happened and how they behaved during the nine months’ of loss, how they are behaving now and into the future.

Rather than attempting any kind of naturalism, the designer Renee Mulder working with puppetry and movement director Alice Osborne, uses a kind of Gothic mystery format, with a Banraku style puppet to represent the silent Laura, operated by Kate Worsley and Julia Ohanessian, who each also play Laura in live form.  Gusts of wind, swirling curtains and rustling dry leaves emphasise the fears of the frightened parents as they speak to each other and Laura in apparently ‘normal’ dialogue.

Mulder has written The setting begins as interior, it’s minimal and changeable, a space where absence has a presence.  Eventually the interior is invaded and overpowered by external forces that turn the space inside out.  For this kind of effect, the play went through three stages of development. 

Hilary Bell was commissioned to present an idea, originally for a ‘spooky’ story for young people, but came up with a study of adult fears which suited the mainstage rather than STC’s education program.  Next came a ‘Rough Draft’ workshop stage with the puppeteer Alice Osborne finding ways with performers to put Bell’s ideas into physical form.  Then Bell wrote the dialogue, with the space for visual action and further interpretation and expansion of her ideas in the rehearsal process directed by Sarah Goodes.

The result is a great demonstration of STC’s commitment to new writing.  In previous times, now long ago,  this kind of workshop development process was done annually at the now defunct National Playwrights’ Conference.  It’s important to support this work as part of the natural function of the Sydney Theatre Company.

The ending of The Splinter remains a mystery, spooky and with the equal possibility of new life or death.  Walking to the train station, each unexpected sound – of a security guard slamming a door, of the swish of a passing car in the dark street – made me jump as if the wind which brought Laura’s ghostly figure into being would make her suddenly appear before me.

The theatrical illusion had worked its power on me.