Hot Seat, ROAR Theatre and 2SER in association with the Tamarama Rock Surfers present the Australian Premiere of VINCENT RIVER by Philip Ridley at The Old Fitzroy Theatre.
Philip Ridley a playwright, film maker, children's novelist and artist/photographer in an interview was asked about a scrapbook collection of photographs of his that is famously "notorious". Mr Ridley comments that there are "more severed heads than pansies.... more severed heads than kittens in boots" in it. Mr Ridley's most famous and notorious play is MERCURY FUR, which had a season several years ago at the SBW Stables Theatre, is a terrifying picture of a world where drugs, violence and sex, and death as sex is for sale in London, maybe in the near future, or is it now? (A snuff play where children are involved.) Mr Ridley pulls no punches about the diseased world or the possibilities of the diseased world about him. A quote in the program to this production from the producing company is: "To censor nothing is an act of love." Time Out magazine is quoted elsewhere as saying: "Ridley is a singular writer.....and the creator of some of the most peculiar grotesque and compelling British plays (and films) of the last several years." Since MERCURY FUR there has appeared LEAVES OF GLASS (2007) and PIRANHA HEIGHTS (2008) in the theatre.
VINCENT RIVER was written in 2000, so it is relatively an old play in his oeuvre. It deals with the meeting of a 53 year old mother, Anita (Elaine Hudson) and a 16 year old boy, Davey (Beejan Olfat) who in grief reveal, gradually, the mutual origin of it: the gay bashing/murder of Vincent River. This play seems to me a promising beginning for the writer and certainly when you read his consequent material you see how quickly and how darkly confident he became.
This duologue is a long expositional reveal of the histories of these two people and the journeys that they had, to get to this meeting. While the writing is poetically beautiful in places it does not have textually, the dramatic impetus to keep one's attention at a totally thrilling level. It is a bit rather like novel writing. So, what needs to be supplied is acting that provides the subtextual needs and discoveries and dilemmas. The under surface of the "desperation" of these two people needs to be powerful. Unfortunately this does not happen.
The Director, Jonathan Wald, has with the Designers (Set:Tom Bannerman; Costume: OTTO Continuum) created a world of brown cardboard boxes (the walls and the furniture) and it has a warmth about it that is comfortable and poses "metaphor" where it is not needed. In fact it opposes the set and lighting guides by the writer, that asks for a harsher more real world of dislocation and cruel revealing white light. These people become exposed nakedly in the desperation for want of love and closure in a cruel world and the character of Anita, in the writer's text, is left alone and facing a bleak world, bereft not relieved. This production with the Set, Costume, Lighting (Matt Schubach) and Sound (Steve Toulmin) (The sound introducing sentimental orchestral relief from the coruscating possibility of the horror of the characters revelations, distracting us from the discomfort that Mr Ridley is searching for.) has a softening middle class edge. The play is set in the "battlefields" of East London. A working class environment of struggle, sexual and racial violence and poverty. There is little room for the bourgeoisie comforts here. There is in this production's visual and sound values a romantic sentimentality that goes against what Mr Ridley is revealing. (Look to his later plays to see the world he knows.)
This, then, is reflected in the choices that the director and actors have made in their creation of Anita and Davey. The dialects are not accurate or tough enough. They are moderated and take away most of the authenticity of the harsh world of the location of the play. Both the sounds and the rhythms needed the cadence and tempo of the "class" to take us to the pugnacious survivors "sound" of the play's location. It needed us to be taken to an aurally challenging place. It needed to disconcert us and challenge us to look at a world that was not within our comfort zone. (A viewing of Mr Ridley's film THE KRAYS would have given a clue to what was necessary.)
Mr Ridley in his description of Anita talks of her look (and attitude, perhaps) "half brassy, half classy." Certainly Anita is aspirational and maybe the tragedy which confronts her at the lonely stand at the end of the play is her recognition of her need to be "classy" (despite her "brassy" inclinations), and her smothering behaviour with Vincent, to use him to achieve this in the face of her parents and neighbours sneering acknowledgements of her dreams, had forced her son to a world that she tellingly regards as "sordid" but which Davey corrects, as reported in the newspaper, as "secret". Miss Hudson certainly as the instincts for "the classy" elements of the character but is stretched to find "the brassy". It is this imbalance in character choice that skews the play into middle class comforts.Miss Hudson plays to reveal the character as pitiable and so strives to win our empathy instead of a tougher revelation of a flawed and damaged individual who faintly recognises, maybe her culpability in this tragedy. A Medea mother, not a saintly mother. Mr Ridley knows this woman intimately and the character of the "blinded" mother appears in his later texts (Liz in LEAVES OF GLASS) with a clear-eyed and unsentimental accuracy. In what appears to be insecurity in the playing of some of the scenes Miss Hudson displays physical tensions and moments of frozen dead eyed stares that presumably we are meant to plumb for meaning. Instead I found them as stylistically incongruous and puzzling. Where was the director to guide this usually instinctually clever actress away from these creative expressions?
Mr Olfat, similarly, is too comfortably middle class and educated for this boy. The 16 year old that Mr Ridley asks for does not appear here. Mr Olfat looks older and comfortably educated (the costume does not help) and so some of the visual innocence and the consequential uncomfortable sexual "ugliness" of interaction that occurs with Anita does not have the power it ought. And Mr Ridley is notorious for this unflinching juxtaposition of the real situations that humanity sometimes finds itself in, in its search for recognition and validation. In the opening sequences Mr Olfat is "acting" rather than simply "being". Trusting himself more by playing simpler may have been better. However, Mr Olfat's handling of the long speeches, particularly the long story at the end of the play, is extremely engaged and alive with imaginative detail. It is beautifully delivered. Unfortunately, in terms of the play, it seems to be too much Mr Olfat and not enough Davey. Too much life knowledge at play, rather than a relatively fledgling youth at the beginning of a dangerous life adventure which he realises only as he verbalises the tragic events that results in the horrific beating and murder of Vincent River. The connections are too knowing and relished by the actor and not sufficiently translated into character experiencing. The verbal and emotional range, though rich, tends to sit in a middle area and the boundaries of both the technical instrument and the emotional range lacks exploration. It sits too comfortably.
The Director, Mr Wald has opted for a safer set of artistic choices than those indicated by the writer, and thereby, in my experience of Mr Ridley's work, avoided the tough time we should have had in the theatre. This is a palatable night in the theatre instead of the confronting and difficult one written on the page. There are too many "pansies....or kittens in boots" and not enough "severed heads" in this production. Too much "censoring" (or muting) of the "love" in this text. So if you want your theatre easy, here it is. And despite the fact that this is an early play of Mr Ridley and not the full throttle horror of say MERCURY FUR, it does have the potential to stir an audience to a state of uncomfortable outrage instead of easy acceptance.
The turning point of this play is a vicious gay bashing and murder of a human being. One, on exiting The Old Fitz, does not feel outraged enough. Check out DV8's TO BE STRAIGHT WITH YOU for outrage and much else over this issue.
Playing now until 31 January. Book online or call 1300 GET TIX (438 849).