Monday, September 28, 2009

The Only Child

THE HAYLOFT PROJECT and B SHARP present THE ONLY CHILD at Belvoir St Downstairs Theatre.

THE ONLY CHILD by Simon Stone and Thomas Henning is a new play inspired by Henrik Ibsen's LITTLE EYOLF. The text was devised with The Hayloft Project cast: Gareth Davies, Shelly Lauman, Anne-Louise Sarks & Tom Wren.

I read in the pre-publicity press (The Sydney Morning Herald?) that Simon Stone one day, a recently married man, having some obstacles with his partner, was, while bathing in his tub at home was reading Ibsen's LITTLE EYOLF. At some point, whilst still soaking, it appears that he had an Eureka(!) moment and grasped that he had found the idea for his new work: an adaptation of the Ibsen play for contemporary times.

There are some very good scenes and speeches in this play, indeed. There are also some very beautiful visual images - like the opening one when we enter the theatre: A wooden raised platform on which a white, old style bathtub,supported on golden claws, off centre, is being filled with a steady shower of steaming water. A space with a bath or a room with only a bath or as the characters in the play call it "the bathroom". Set Design (Claude Marcos). The lighting Design here in these moments, and throughout the production, is also striking (Teegan Lee). Accompanied by some beautifully chosen music (Sound Designer, Composer not credited). The production details are exemplary.

Simon Stone, not only co-writer but also the Director, in his program notes: "This play was written while we were rehearsing. As the actors responded to Ibsen's original characters, Thomas (Henning) and I responded in turn with scenes, which they then responded to, and so on and so forth until we have what we are watching tonight." Earlier, Mr Stone says: "This play is probably still Ibsen's. The preoccupation with sex and death is his. The horrible scrambling attack- counter-attack of a confused grieving couple is his. Some of the essential plot points are Ibsen's....".

Inspired by Ibsen, then, and within the context of his own life and those of his actors, a play evolved. The nomenclature of the characters from the source has been mostly kept (Although Borgheim as become Henrik). In Ibsen's play an unhappily married couple, Rita and Alfred experience the loss of their only child, a child that had been crippled through their own neglect whilst in the throws of eager sex. They confront each other with a terrifying guilt on the death of Eyolf with the aid of Asta, a half -sister to Alfred and a friend of the family, Borgheim (Henrik in this adaptation). Bitter recriminations that lead to secrets that rupture all their worlds and a necessary adaptation to new life goals and values ensues. It has a savagery that recalls Strindberg's DANCE OF DEATH. THE ONLY CHILD follows a similar narrative.

This text seems to me to have great potential.

The production, as I saw it, on Friday night, did not. It seems that the actors ownership of the devised script has led them to a passionate mode of expression that mostly lent itself to indulgences. The decibel level for three quarters of the 90 minutes was so relentlessly unpleasant that it was difficult to participate in the unfurling of the intriguing story. In truth, my ears afterward were aching, as if I had been standing beside a tower of speakers at a rave party. It is a small space. Volume seemed to be the principal vocal technique of these actors. (Come to think of it, The Hayloft Project: SPRING AWAKENING, in the same venue, had a similar aural assault on the ears. It must be part of the standard artistic hallmarks of the company.) The decibel level seemed to be a substitute for subtlety. A delivery style of rapid exchange between most of the characters became a dominant stylistic stamp, it was so wonderfully drilled that sense was loss, the content of the line secondary. Style overrode content for me. Directorially, the use of the bathtub became a metaphoric gimmick. A static image that lost its virility with the passing of time. (How many plays are going to be set in bathrooms in Sydney theatre? This must be my 5th or 6th (or more) in the last two years. There employment by directors and designers as metaphor have had their used by date, used up, surely, now,hopefully?). The nakedness of the actors became a tiresome and accumulatively tedious ploy - the daring of it became benign amusement as contemplation of individual anatomy helped pass the time.

All the actors are clearly performers of some skill and passion but the performances did not allow me to appreciate their potential. The relative vocal control of Ms Sarks rendered her work the most empathetic on this night. The most puzzling performance was given by Gareth Davies as Hendrik who seemed bent on playing for comic affect which often undermined the dramatic impact of his textual function. It seemed to me that this was a rehearsal experiment that amused in its exploration of the boundaries of the characters possibilities, but has been allowed to be indulgently maintained in the choices of the production, at what I could gather, at dramatic expense to the scheme of the dramaturgy.

It is Hendrik, sitting on the side of the bath, towards the end of the play that says "It is cruel and juvenile". That is what I thought summed up the night for me. "Cruel" to my ears, I felt as if I had been physically assaulted. And the denouement of this play "juvenile" in its happy ending. That after such grief and bitterness to believe that this couple, Rita and Alfred, could comfort each other and survive is definitely a young romantic's conclusion to the realities of life. Wishful thinking in the tub of Mr Stone's Eureka moment? Mr Ibsen got it right in LITTLE EYOLF, though together, they are apart. In contemporary times, in which this play is set, the statistical likelihood of this marriage staying together is very remote.

Some of the audience found this a funny experience. In fact the Director, Simon Stone, who was present on the night I attended, filming the performance, found it hilarious and was its biggest fan, especially the shenanigans of the comically deft Mr Davies. This is the second work of Mr Stone's we have seen at Belvoir this year. The first was THE PROMISE - a production that I thought only dealt with part of the potential of the play. There seems to be an intellectual enthusiasm present in this director's work but it is lambasted with an adrenalin urgency for cleverness that supersedes detail and care. Ms Sved with her production of Martin Crimp's DEALING WITH CLAIR or Ms Mackereth's work on Falk Richter's UNDER ICE, both at The Stables, were productions that also had intellectual enthusiasm but also intellectual RIGOUR and detailed care, that attempted to serve the writer to achieve audience clarity and a good night in the theatre. It is ironic that the director of this production, has, for me, undermined his own writing achievements with such directorial self-indulgence. (Simple staging difficulties for instance prevented me from seeing the final speeches of Rita.)

May be for you but not for me. I have friends who saw it on opening night and loved it. The Sydney Morning Herald critic did too. Make up your own mind. THE HAYLOFT PROJECT from Melbourne have garnered accolades and I, as yet, cannot see why. I wish that I could.

Playing now until 11 October.
For more information or to book click here.


Anonymous said...

Thank you! I was expecting great things and was disappointed. While some of the writing was poetic and insightful, and aspects of the performances very good, ultimately the play had the subtlety of a ton of bricks and was melodramatic in the extreme. Being subjected to 1.5 hours of shouting was pretty hellish. It's hard to imagine this production receiving rave reviews in London and New York.

M. Morninghorn. said...

This was the most ghastly, overblown and pretentious production I have seen in Sydney for a long time. I thought I must have been a different show than the one I saw reviewed in the SMH and Sun-Herald the previous week. It was undergraduate at best, stylistically and tonally confused, and acted by four actors who seemed to be inhabiting four different universes. A dismal production. I feel relieved having read this review - I started to think I was the only theatre-goer left in Sydney who is able to independently watch and assess the work being offered! Sheesh.