Saturday, November 30, 2013

Heaven & Earth by Will Gayre

Heaven & Earth by Will Gayre.  Mainstage Theatre Company directed by Don Gay at Peacock Theatre, Salamanca Place, Hobart.  November 22-30, 2013

Reviewed by Frank McKone
November 28

Canberra critics have published reviews recently from Sydney, Melbourne and Perth.  It’s now Hobart’s turn.  Mainstage is based at the Peacock Theatre in the Salamanca Arts Centre.  The author and the director are one and the same person despite their different names.  This alone begins to explain the nature of the philosophy behind this play – that reality is so vast, indeed infinite in its possibilities, that any unexplainable experience may be as likely to have a cause outside what we regard as evidential in the scientific sense as to have a place within our concepts of the physical universe.

It’s a challenging task to make a successful drama on this kind of theme, beginning from a personal apparent déjà vu recognition of an Italian country house while driving past on a holiday trip from Tasmania.  Tourist Dan’s obsession with finding out the ‘truth’, and the apparent truth he finds and reacts to, with tragic consequences, is presented to us by his defence lawyer as a question for judgement.

If all the events are no more than a mental aberration on his part, should Dan be treated as criminally guilty of murder?  On the other hand if these events, inexplicable in normal physical terms, really happened, then who did he actually kill – and was this a criminal act?

There are reminiscences all the way from Carrie to The Maids as the ‘spirit’ world seems to have effect 80 years after the causative events on that Italian farm in World War II, but this script does not match either of those for dramatic quality.  The writer Will Gayre provides a lengthy description in the program of his recurring dream “from the age of about six until maybe twenty” of “standing in front of an old double-storied [sic] farm house with a tiled roof and cream stucco walls” which he would enter and sometimes see “people in the rooms – never anyone I recognised and they didn’t seem at all aware of my presence.”

Fictional tourist Dan speaks Gayre’s words from the program notes: “Nearly ten years later I was driving through Italy on my first major Eurpoean sojourn.  Somewhere between Pisa and Livorno I turned a corner with the river I was following and, there, sitting on the river bank was ... the villa from my dreams!

Bit by bit a story develops of two couples – Dan (Alex Rigozzi) and current girlfriend Sue (Melanie Brown), and their friends Matt (Aidan Furst) and Jo (Bryony Hindley) who also play the roles in 1940-41 of newly married Marko and Sophia.  Sophia refuses to accept Marko's being called up in the defence of his country, calls upon God – who seems unable to help her – and kills her husband rather than allow him to return to battle after his all-too-short leave.  She stabs herself, but lives for some time before dying in a mental asylum, while the local villagers believe the violence was at the hands of unknown assailants on one side or the other in the confusion of the war in Italy.

So far, so good – except that in the modern time Dan’s digital photo of the house shows a shadowy figure of a woman.  Later her image has disappeared.  Then when Sue makes seriously playful sexual approaches to Dan, some inexplicable force throws her away from him.  After an attempt to take Dan back in time by an older woman hypnotist (Carol Devereaux) with whom Dan had previously had a relationship, Sophia appears as a ghost to him, but a touch on the shoulder spins him around, and it is Jo he kills.

Matt and Sue are distraught and mystified, while it seems that Sophia had become Jo, whom the obsessed – or rather possessed – Dan had to destroy.  At this point Devereaux appears as Dan’s defence attorney to present her concluding speech to us, as the jury.

You can see the connection with Carrie, I guess, but you may be wondering why I mentioned Jean Genet’s The Maids.  The problem for Heaven & Earth is that it is far too much like the superficial idea of horror-spirit-reality in popular genre movies like Carrie, when it needs the subtleties of psychology of The Maids to support the weight of serious discussion of the nature of reality which this writer seems to want to have with us.  Images disappearing from a hard drive and a character being thrown across the stage by a mysterious force just don’t cut the mustard.

Gayre takes Shakespeare as his source – There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy – as if we, or indeed Shakespeare, might believe Hamlet’s father’s ghost to be literally real.  Nothing inexplicable happens in Hamlet.  But Shakespeare, like Genet, understood that events can overwhelm some people’s ability to hold onto reality, while their plays help us understand ourselves.  Gayre does no more than fall into the fad of questioning everything just because we can.

There is also the problem that Don Gay, director, was not able to present the play on stage in a smoother format, rather than switching back and forth between  times and places in a repetitive and interruptive way.  Yes, it was obvious when we saw the slide of the old farmhouse that this was now 1940/41, and now it is modern times in Don and Sue’s apartment when that stone wall was turned around to become their sofa.  Too obvious.

Though the script itself makes this a technical staging problem, it could have been handled better – even in the fairly limited performing space of the Peacock Theatre – by, for example, setting aside one area for the 1940/41 period and another for modern time.  Then, with lighting and actors held in freeze positions, changes would not need actors to exit and enter, with the occasional backstage person or the actors themselves having to move props and furniture that I had to watch.  It would also allow space and time to be connected for us, for example by the force that throws Sue appearing to come from Sophia’s area on the stage, and so that the transition of Sophia into Jo might be made as Dan moves into the 1940/41 space and time.

However, if there was one aspect of the play that showed dramatic strength it was in the performance of Sophia and Jo by Bryony Hindley, backed by effective work by Aidan Furst as Marko and Matt.  Hindley, at nineteen, is written up as seeking to audition for further training.  I for one would certainly encourage her in this endeavour.

Mainstage is clearly a small-scale company, similar to the many Canberra companies like Elbow Theatre, Bohemian Productions and others now associated with the development programs offered by The Street Theatre which continue to generate new work and opportunities for practitioners, often opening up interstate and international employment.  I suppose I should conclude, then, that there are more things, indeed, at least on earth, and perhaps even in heaven, for such theatre companies to aspire to.