Playing with political power

Spendour (Now Look Here)

Metro Arts, Sue Brennar Theatre

March 29 – April 8

While civil war rages outside in a snowy Eastern European-ish country, four women from very different backgrounds are bunkered in a lavish drawing room, waiting for a dictator to return home. As things deteriorate outside, so too does their civilised cordiality. There is an intensity to the tension that results as the dictator’s wife Micheleine (Pip Boyce) awaits her husband’s return, in the company of her supposed best friend Genevieve (Luisa Prosser), British photojournalist, Kathryn (Kerith Atkinson), who has arrived to photograph Micheleine’s husband, and her sly interpreter Gilma (Ngoc Phan). As they wait, they drink chilli vodka, eat oranges and talk … and things unravel.

Mutual mistrust and misunderstanding aside, however, there are still many moments of comedy as respite to the friction, which make Abi Morgan’s “Splendour” such a memorable audience experience of privilege and power. Unfamiliar with the language, Kathryn has to reply on Gilma, whose deliberate mistranslations make for many of the early laughs. Then the opportunistic interpreter begins to pilfer from the opulent surroundings, stuffing her pockets with everything from china teacups to children’s movies.

Micheleine carries a regal confidence and patronising demeanour in contrast to her modest friend Genevieve. And Boyce and Prosser play the dynamic to perfection. Boyce is particularly impressive in her stoic realisation of what awaits once the revolutionaries reach her, and esteem about being ‘history under their noses’. These are all strong women in their own different ways and it is wonderful to see a play that gives them a stage unto themselves. Although seemingly stereotypical, under Kate Wild’s direction, all are multifaceted, real and interesting to watch.

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We never see the city that is being seized by revolution, nor is the country specified, which evokes some audience frustration, because this is a show that leaves you wanting to know more about its everything. It is a demanding but riveting experience, enhanced by its simple staging and stark soundtrack of haunting piano sounds. Its fragmented structure, too, provides much fascination as different perspectives are offered on the same events and characters reveal their inner thoughts and shifting emotional perspectives through interior monologue asides, almost as a running commentary on the action.

“Spendour” is an intricate and complex piece of storytelling. Indeed, it is a bold, beautifully-realised play, enhanced by some stellar performances. Its commentary about the fallibility of power is made all the more engrossing by its fractured form and claustrophobic feel, meaning that after some initial confusion due to translations when all dialogue is English, its dramatic 90-minute journey flies by despite being a slow burn of strained relationships and political uncertainty.

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