Saturday, September 28, 2019


Photo by Brett Boardman

Griffin Theatre Company presents, SPLINTER, by Hilary Bell, at the SBW Stables, Darlinghurst.6 September - 12 October.

This is a revival production of SPLINTER, by Australian writer, Hilary Bell. It was first produced by The Sydney Theatre Company (STC), in 2012.

Man (Simon Gleeson) and Woman (Lucy Bell), husband and wife, have just had their daughter Laura returned to them. She had been absent for nine months. No-one knows where she has been or what has happened. The play begins in a mood of wonder and excitement. Also, disbelief. Are they laughing or crying? Is it a dream? Is it real?

Laura has not spoken. She is an enigma.

In the original production at the STC Laura, the daughter, was represented through puppetry, manipulated by two actors. In this production she is an invisible figure that Man and Woman have colluded to invent and believe. They both interact comfortably with the empty space where their Laura, for them, palpably exists. It was, at the STC, I remember, an intriguing performance adjustment to endow the puppet(s) with the responsibility of being Laura. There grew in the storytelling an intriguing sense of mystery and magic - spooky even, like the surreal episodes with the puppets in Ingmar Bergman's FANNY AND ALEXANDER (1982).

In this production, Directed by Lee Lewis, it is a very odd visual 'offer' to have Woman talking and feeding an empty space, invisible soup on a real spoon. I came to endow the empty space with them and justified that acceptance by coming to believe that Man and Woman have become desperately unhinged in their grief and have invented, jointly, a 'child' to help them survive what life has thrown at them, they are splintered in front of our eyes - much like George and Martha are in Edward Albee's WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? (1962) - remember their invented son with blue hair and blonde eyes? With this theatrical ploy in this production of SPLINTER, the atmosphere that permeates this production is one of a discomfortable sadness viewed through a fog of the possibility of a Norman Bates psychological possession, a la Hitchcock's masterpiece, PSYCHO (1960). That so desperate is their grief that can manifest a life force which they believe is a human being not a fantasy.

Man and Woman are joined together and concentrate on Laura, to enable her to recover. The couple begin empowered with their invention but that disintegrates gradually through the events of the arc of Ms Bell's story. As time moves on Man begins to express moments of doubt that their invisible Laura is NOT their Laura. He tells Woman of his problems and the relationship begins to splinter, too. The splintering becomes a growing battle to maintain their sanity, with Man moving to the rejection of this Laura, whilst Woman desperately clutches at the splintering 'game-play' of the invisible Laura. The tension between the two positions becomes unbearable.


And so different an imaginative path from that that I created with my first experience of the play. Hilary Bell's thematic obsessions are influenced by her life long entanglement with fairy stories and the influence of the unreliable narrator. Both elements are at the creative core of her writing - all of it, I dare say. This work at its glimmering beginning and in its progress development was fuelled/referenced by "spanned sources as diverse as Henry James' THE TURN OF THE SCREW, folk tales about changelings, the Grimm Brothers' THE WILD SWANS, Anderson's THE SNOW QUEEN, and a memoir written by Ed Smart about his daughter's disappearance. ... At the core of the play's story is doubt and its corrosive nature." , says Ms Bell in her Program notes.

Doubt leads to shifting of the lines of logic and when, as in the case of this play, the two protagonists: Man and Woman, take opposing stances: one of change and the other of holding ground, the stress/strain splinters their worlds.

The blank weirdness of the colour palette of the Set Design by Tobhiyah Stone Feller, delivers the creeping sense that outside that wooden doorway, window frame, we will find ourselves in the middle of the woods - alone and lost with invisible threats - Red Riding Hood's big bad wolf or, Hansel and Gretel's ginger-bread house that has a caged boy been fattened for dinner. That we are on the edge of our fears, sanity. There is a great visual stimulation enhanced by Benjamin Brockman's Lighting with the shadows of Mic Gruchy's Video Design.

Hilary Bell has a powerful ability to create, subtly, her stylistic language obsessions inside a text that seems on a surface read simplistic and obvious - tackling it, in depth, however, and the hidden complications become an exciting challenge for the artists.

Thus the work requires actor's with a confident intelligence and an easily accessible resource that can create the sub-text in communicable action alongside the audible text. The VOICE becomes the necessary tool to solve the complication of this play. With only two actors carrying the work the task is, indeed, formidable.

The major hurdle for me in fully embracing this production lies in the vocal quality of Simon Gleeson. Mr Gleeson is a highly appreciated Musical Theatre Artist (LES MISERABLES, OKLAHOMA, THE FAR PAVILLIONS), his singing voice sitting in the upper register. Mr Gleeson's speaking voice, on the night I watched the play, sat high in its register, too and unfortunately had a kind of strangulated quality. I had the experience of hearing an instrument that could not/did not reach into the resonant body qualities that could contrast 'musically' with his regular sound and so handicapped the effect of the tragic unwinding of the Man's splintering.The dark dramatics of a Bass were not used. His sound was an obstacle to my engagement, belief, in the Man and his dilemma.

This was made more obvious when the verbal and vocal skill that Lucy Bell was able to command as the Woman filled the SBW Theatre space with a variety of calibrated choice of sound that not only created drama but a resonant character with whom we could comfortably identify and care about because of her vocal access to her fully body resonant quality.

SPLINTER, having a new production in Sydney, is worth seeing. Whether it be your first encounter with it or, as in my case my second that permits me to compare and contrast. One of the important experiences of going to the theatre, that is a rare one in Sydney, is of being able to appreciate not only the core content and its qualities but also to observe how the individual artists can shape and highlight the material in a new and more individual challenging way.

Part of the excitement of being a regular theatre goer in London (New York) is that one can see many productions of, say, HEDDA GABLER - many in one year and to be able to observe the influence of each of the artists playing Hedda on the experience of the character and story. In Sydney, I have seen Glenda Jackson, Judy Davis, Cate Blanchett (with others) tackle this great challenging role and being devastated by the influence of their unique self on Ibsen's challenge. However, those opportunities have been spread over 30 or 35 years -when did we see Ms Blanchett's Hedda: 19, 15 years, ago? For the general public the Sydney audience virtually has to re-learn the play because of the passing of time not always giving the audience the easy opportunity to compare and contrast, appreciate or disparage, the ART of the performers, creatives and writer. It is, is it not, great to see different principals performing the Prince an ODette/Odile in the same season of Swan Lake? To see those varied artists, encompassing the same choreography and characters on the same musical beat, and yet create unique individual contributions that can throw new light onto the possibilities of the story. Is it not a gift in your theatre going experience?

This revival of SPINTER, although still spread over a time space of 7 years, is invaluable if you are a serious theatre goer and not just someone who simply wants entertainment. One can become, with this opportunity, a connoisseur of art - like reviewing a film or re-regarding that painting hanging faithfully on the walls of the NSW Arts Gallery.

SPLINTER is playing up at the SBW Stables for a few more weeks.

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