Review by Cicely Binford
From the mind of playwright Lally Katz comes a piece about a pair of siblings who live in an isolated world of fiction and friction in The Eisteddfod. Under the direction of Black Swan State Theatre Associate Director Jeffrey Jay Fowler, Natalie Holmwood and Brendan Ewing live out the oddball fantasies of Gerture and Abalone in a dingy, forgotten room in some abandoned corner of the world.
Gerture and Abalone’s parents were killed in a car crash when they were younger, leaving the two alone to fend for themselves in life. They developed agoraphobia and elaborate imaginations that allowed them to live out rich emotional lives, but as they’ve moved into adulthood, they never left those childhood fantasies and fears behind. Gerture longs for a different life – she pretends she’s a German teacher with a bad boy lover named Ian and spends long periods of time by herself away from Abalone. Abalone senses her pulling away and tries desperately to reel her back in by asking her to play Lady Macbeth to his Macbeth in this year’s (imaginary) Eisteddfod.
The two reminisce, role-play (as their parents, for instance, or Abalone plays Gerture’s Ian), and rehearse an abridged and modernised version of Macbeth, and we, the audience, try to keep up as they bounce around through their permeable realities. Fortunately Fowler, Holmwood and Ewing make this pleasurable and easy to do for the most part, even as they work through what some stuffed shirts might consider rude behaviour and uncomfortable moments. There’s a toilet sitting right in the middle of the stage that gets used for something other than its intended purpose, but which could still provide a gross-out factor for some.
In any case, Gerture and Abalone’s world is twisted, damaged, and pitiful, yet the production stays fairly light and humorous due to the keen and thorough character work by each of the actors, and smart direction from Fowler. In less capable hands this script could easily turn into a hot sticky mess trying to run with Katz’s wild and wooly imagination, but thankfully that doesn’t happen. Although for me the script lacks an essential dramatic arc to keep me wondering what’s next, I did enjoy watching Ewing infuse every moment on stage with surprising choices and watching Holmwood slowly reveal Gerture’s deeper nature.
There are many strong, catchy scenes that really sparkle; for example, Abalone explains the origins of the Eisteddfod with a series of illustrations, and their teenagery rendition of Macbeth is clever and fun. But to counter that, a whole new can of worms is opened up at the end that feels cumbersome and maybe even a wrong turn in the script; it feels like one more thing heaped on an already dark and lumpy pile of dirty laundry. Still, the ending does offer room for a few different interpretations.
Tyler Hill has designed a box set that’s suitably dingy for two people who have no contact with the outside world. It’s sparse and brown, with wood-panelled walls (plenty for the scene painters to do here) and piles of cardboard boxes that house interesting props. Lighting designer Lucy Birkinshaw gives us lights that gently nudge us towards a feeling of night or day (though not explicitly), and creates vignettes for monologues. The rear pile of boxes is backlit with an orange glow in one scene (though I haven’t worked out why yet), and occasionally the air conditioner on the wall sometimes bleeds ‘outside’ light through its slats.
There are plenty of laughs and appealing quirks about this show, and it’s a bit edgier than we’re used to from BSSTC, so it should succeed in capturing the imagination of those who are game for a bit of offbeat humour and storytelling – and perhaps most especially – those who are also suffering from a bit of arrested development.
The Eisteddfod runs until July 09 at the Studio Underground of the State Theatre Centre. For tickets and more information, visit the Black Swan website here.