IMMACULATE PRELIMINARIES UNDERMINED BY DEMONSTRATIVE PERFORMANCE AND IMPLAUSIBLE EPIPHANY
THE ARTEFACT PROJECT
writer David Allnutt
director Melissa Fergusson
at French Revolver Studio, Victoria St West, Auckland
From 22 Feb 2012 to 25 Feb 2012
Reviewed by Nik Smythe, 23 Feb 2012
In the chic and versatile French Revolver Studio space – hair salon cum art gallery cum theatre space – we are greeted at the entrance by director /playwright Melissa Fergusson and producer Amanda Turner. After a warm chat they enthusiastically direct (no pun intended) us to the exhibition-opening-style drinks table, featuring the custom designed, and delicious, it turns out, vodka and grapefruit-based Artefact cocktail.
We are good and early so have time for a couple of said refreshing beverages, and to sample at leisure the remarkable petit cupcakes – three ‘script inspired' flavours to represent each of the three acts in the subsequent performance – and to try out the charming wee gratis cardboard binoculars which are not exactly necessary in the intimate space, yet add to the impression we're at something prestigious and international.
So we're feeling pretty important and classy – further assisted by a roving photographer and the project's PR raconteur, Mr. Paul Blomfield himself, gregariously schmoozing the crowd – by the time the theatre part begins.
Sean Hurst's set lives up to the minimalist refinement of the preliminaries: simple furniture pieces set against a feature wall of dynamic silvery-grey wallpaper with a sleek black kind of feather-wing motif. Class all the way. Then the three-play series begins.
In the first play, Phobia, Ruby (Gina Timberlake) meets her best friend Richard (Mark Huston) in London where they spend a week in a hotel, catching up. She makes pointed mention of how they've shared everything together except sexual intimacy; he makes pointed mention of how much he'd like to. She shrugs it off suggesting ‘perhaps in five years', and their week together is thus infused with hope and frustration.
Play two, Pause, is set at least a decade later, in a hotel again. They both have children now – an 11 year old daughter for him; an infant son for her, who sleeps on the bed between them throughout the scene. They converse more on philosophy and politics and the perils of parenting, and on his womanising ways and her terrible choices in men.
The final play is a good length of time later, evidenced in her clear struggle coming to terms with late-middle age and in particular being an imminent grandmother. Meanwhile he seems more settled and mature than ever, albeit now married to a woman half his age. As he sagaciously coaches her through her anxieties, she experiences a personal epiphany about her own relationship and makes a crucial life-changing decision, all inside two minutes. And there we leave them, and on goes life.
The structure and semi-mercurial quality of Fergusson's scripts (written in collaboration with David Allnut) give it an appealing Pinter-esque character, and the production design is very well appointed, not least the soundtrack of well-chosen Bowie classics – apparently the only music these two listen to together.
The only aspect that lets it all down is the performance. Particularly in Phobia, the wholly demonstrative acting style undermines the intimate, personal nature of this relationship implied in the script, indeed discussed by Richard and Ruby in detail.
Timberlake has a notably more naturalistic sense of her role than Huston, who seems to have difficulty relaxing and inhabiting his character's truth, but what's lacking most is believable chemistry between them.
While I found these directorial shortcomings distracting throughout most of the first two plays, I confess that by the third I had somehow warmed to them. Maybe it was the cocktails and cupcakes, maybe the actors had overcome their premiere jitters, or perhaps people are just more likeable as they get older. In any case I'd managed to start caring about these two peoples' lives, until Ruby's preposterously rapid life-changing epiphany destroyed any plausibility they'd managed to achieve.
Altogether the artistic experience is impressive and worthwhile. The theatrical drawbacks are possibly exacerbated by the immaculate preliminaries – certainly the ‘phobia' cupcake had more richness and depth than its namesake chapter.
However I think with a more rigorous, truth-centred theatrical ethic applied to the direction and performance of the scripts, it has the potential to match up.
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