More Motherland

Motherland (Queensland Theatre Company)

The Greenhouse, Bille Brown Studio

April 20 – 30

Sometimes the anticipation for a show is so great that its season sells out in advance even of opening night. For those who saw the initial 2013 Metro Arts season of “Motherland”, the fact that this has happened in advance of its Mainstage season at the Queensland Theatre Company, is, in this case of little surprise, given the epic, multi-layered story’s poetry, passion and ultimate intimacy.

Katherine Lyall-Watson’s “Motherland” is a sweeping dramatic retelling of actual events, based on years of research and writing. At the core is Nell Tritton (Kerith Atkinson), whose father owned Triton Furniture Emporium in George Street). After leaving Brisbane in the 1920s to work in Europe as a foreign correspondent, she fell for and, just before the outbreak of World War Two, married the exiled Russian Prime Minister, Alexander Kerensky, before returning with him to Brisbane in search safety. During earlier exile in 1930s Paris, she has an erotic friendship with fellow (and much more accomplished) Russian poet Nina Berberova (Barbara Lowing). And finally there’s Alyona (Rebecca Riggs) who flees 1990s Russia with her son and her Australian businessman lover to Fitzgerald-inquiry focussed Brisbane.

The successful realisation of the complex three-generation story about these different but linked women requires precise direction and Caroline Dunphy’s deft hand ensures that things move fast with tight transitions between scenes. Timeframes and settings interweave and actors play multiple characters, which all add to its fast but satisfying pace. However, for some unfamiliar with Russian history key points, there may be initial confusion with regards to separation of stories and a few more strategically scattered references could have helped in this regard.

This is a story of strong women, appropriately brought to live by three talented actresses. Lowing, in particular, is captivating in her complex characterisation of the writer and academic Nina, particularly when returned to Russian in her twilight years, haunted by the ghost of her younger self. As the feisty 90-year-old with no patience for platitudes, Lowing shares both humour in her cantankerousness and humanity in her emotion. She could not shine as she does without the subtle, impressive work of Riggs and Atkinson’s compelling performance as the passionate yet controlled Nell. And then there are also Peter Cossar and Daniel Murphy, both of whom transition effortless between multiple roles in support of the work’s female protagonists. Murphy is particularly engaging as Alyona’s son Sasha, confused, dissatisfied and initially frightened when left alone in a Moscow Pizza Hut as he mother goes to defend the barricades in the city’s 1991 coup.

The transportation of audience members through the annals of history is supported by simple staging and a vibrant soundscape, effectively used in combination with spotlights to convey the fear of military threat. And lighting efficiently illuminates the silhouetted bookcase backdrop of the Russian literary world to the comparative and deceptive brightness of Brisbane.

motherland opening

“Motherland” is a sophisticated theatrical work, well-crafted to engage audiences in its intelligent and heartbreaking stories. Not only does it capture a moment of our city’s history in intriguing glory, but it also has universal appeal in its examination of notions of identity. With an accomplished cast re-united to take the audience on its emotional journey, “Motherland” anew is a monumental show that needs to be seen by those who like their theatre to encompass historical and cultural themes, and thankfully for regional audiences there is more “Motherland” to follow with its Queensland tour.

Pensive Pinter

The Lover and A Slight Ache (Now Look Here)

Metro Arts, The Lumen Room

March 8 – 19

Following the success of last year’s production of “The Seagull”, Now Look Here presents two plays by Harold Pinter to take the audience on two very different journeys through the essence of the work of one of last century’s most influential playwrights.

The more light-hearted of the pieces, “The Lover” focuses on the pretence of properness, and fear and jealousy within commitment. While Sarah (Kerith Atkinson) and Richard (Daniel Murphy) appear to be happily married, behind their facade of propriety, lies frank acceptance of infidelity, soon revealed to be a fantasy role play.

The work is filled with the volleys of witty dialogue, punctuated by typical Pinter prolonged pauses afforded by Kate Wild’s indulgently languid pacing, making for a marriage in which both parties are more believable than in their fantasy roles. Atkinson, in particular, is poised in her portrayal of Sarah. Her charismatic presence carries each scene and her comic timing is spot on in banter with Murphy.

lovers.jpgChristine Felmingham‘s pastel lighting hues paint a delicate design picture. Staging is functional, setting the piece in time as much as place, and Penelope Challen’s costumes effectively serve as reflection of the intended era of marital conservatism in which all is not necessarily as it seems. In combination, the elements all serve to paint an appropriate initial portrait of life in Pinter’s pensive world.

Less elaborately staged is the second of the night’s one act plays, “The Slight Ache”, appropriate so given its origins as a radio play. Transferred to the stage play format, however, the work is somewhat unsatisfying, despite the best efforts of the cast.

slight ache

It begins with a conversation between middle-aged Edward (Daniel Murphy) and his wife Flora (Kerith Atkinson) in a country garden over breakfast. Befitting his years as an essayist, Edward is eloquent even in his dithering obsession with ordinary trivialities such as garden plants. But all is not as it seems, with a silent, sinister Matchseller lurking at their garden gate. As the morning morphs into afternoon, Edward becomes increasingly suspicious and Flora urges the stranger into their home for interrogation by her husband.

What follows is a series of increasingly unsettling monologues from Edward, met only with silence from the Matchseller. It is a silence and unresponsiveness filled with assumptions in move towards the play’s final moments when the mysterious Matchseller prophetically trades places with Edward. Clearly there is a metaphor for the taking from amongst the piece’s beautiful writing, however, it is not entirely clear as to what it is. With little visual interest to maintain audience engagement, it is hard work to decipher, in stark contrast to the double-bill’s initial piece.

Atkinson again is skilled in her performance, showing a touching compassion in her one sided conversation of urge for the man to join her inside the house and then upon taking the stranger’s arm to tenderly lead him along. As the mute Matchseller, Zachary Boulton is initially vulnerable and then threatening. When after much silent standing, he eventually takes seat to face the audience, he expresses volumes through only his eyes.

Pinter’s work can be comic or dark, such is the versatility of his drama. In “A Slight Ache” and “The Lover”, Now Look Here presents audiences with both. By once again placing the actor and the playwright at the centre of their work, they have taken audiences into the essence of these classic of the stage and their questions about the complication of life.