By Martin Crimp
Directed by Adena Jacobs
With Dion Mills, Fantine Banulski, Fiona MacLeod & Meredith Penman
Set: Dayna Morrissey
Lighting: Danny Pettingill
Sound: Jared Lewis
Stage Manager: Colleen Jeffery
Assistant Stage Manager: David Baker
A family, their children, their neighbor, a nurse. Off-stage, a war, an absent husband, a writer, his child, now living, now dead. If you try and analyse the story of The City any further, you won’t get very far because reality is up for grabs here. With the premise that underneath all our conventional interactions, no matter how intimate, there is an entire other universe of desire, intent and the hovering threat of violence, the play allows its characters to voice their own fears or desires but never to comfort one another. They may hold human conversations but their emotional orbits do not overlap. Even in the apparently most innocuous of discourses there is much else going on.
The City is one of the most inspiring and unconventional works I’ve seen in a while, mesmerizing all the way through. It is brilliantly directed (by Adena Jacobs) and performed. We know Dion Mills is good but in this show he truly comes into his own in as Christopher in a performance that builds in intensity until we can imagine him doing absolutely anything. Fiona Macleod does some of her best work without uttering a word; the anguish she can portray is at times unnerving. Macleod doesn’t drop the ball for a second as Clair; she and Mills are most ably supported by Meredith Penman as the nurse on the verge of a nervous breakdown and by little Georgie Hawkins (sharing the role with Fantine Banulski) as the daughter. A mention has to be made of the subtle but effective lighting design. There was very nearly a hint of soundtrack predictably when a piano music came into play but this device was thoroughly deconstructed so there was no obvious underlining of text by score.
The language in this play is taut and stretched, thrumming with menace. The characters never feel safe and neither do we. Martin Crimp’s play examines the isolated goings-on of a family, struggling to balance themselves in individual despair, attempting to connect, to share, and seemingly doing so in words but the shifting ground makes it impossible for anyone to hold fast. The world outside offers unemployment, a secret war, piano playing that is ugly when you listen closely and encounters with the horrible truths of other lives.
The work’s ancestry can be traced to Brecht and Kafka; the tightness of the writing lends an absurdist tone to its circular layers of sadness, terror and futility but the play doesn’t stop there. It isn’t grim (although the story it tells is) and the irony can be exquisitely funny. Nor does it tidy anything up. It is a skillfully built up picture of loneliness where the commonplace threads connecting individuals are woven into a noose.
The City is very, very good indeed.
Liza Dezfouli, Australian Stage Online (12/09/10)
ARISTOTLE once said “a great city is not to be confounded with a populous one” and given a cast of four is all that’s needed to make The City great, indeed, he may well have had a point.
Christopher (Dion Mills) and Clair (Fiona Macleod, pictured left) are an average married couple in any average city with their average ups and downs. She is a translator who wishes she could write books rather than simply find the right words to replicate those of others, and he is about to lose his job in some industry that’s all about sales and graphs and charts and politics. Maybe they’re happy, maybe they aren’t, but it’s altogether possible they no longer remember the difference. But then they run into a series of events that are anything but average.
Clair meets an author who has lost — literally — a child and flirts with an affair, while neighbour Jenny (Meredith Penman) — a chronic insomniac — pops in unannounced as Clair and Christopher’s daughter (Fantine Banulski/Georgie Hawkins) develops an obsession with blood.
The City is initially a puzzling — albeit intriguing — piece of theatre that examines violence in all its forms, physical and emotional. Playwright Martin Crimp has built his city in a place that exists at the intersection of reality and imagination, as well-constructed as the protagonists forced to come to terms with their own failings and vulnerabilities.
At times its sense of exaggeration can be overwhelming, but the clever twist more than pays the audience back for its patience.
BRITISH playwright Martin Crimp is perhaps best known for Attempts on Her Life, a bold work involving splintered and contradictory accounts of an absent female protagonist. Noparticular characters are assigned to speak the lines, giving immense freedom to the director and actors.
That freedom persists in The City, although the characters are more defined. There’s Clair (Fiona Macleod), a literary translator, her husband Christopher (Dion Mills), their unnamed daughter (Fantine Banulski/Georgie Hawkins), and their neighbour Jenny (Meredith Penman), a nurse.Yet the narrative remains enigmatic, and the ultimate freedom Crimp seems to be insisting on is ours — to unlock the puzzle as we see fit.
A substantial part of the dialogue is marked by … ‘‘literary soliloquy’’ might be the best description. The characters narrate small incidents and fragmentary impressions in vivid, compulsive detail.
In this production, director Adena Jacobs constructs a Gordian knot of existential isolation and incidental connection by directing the performances largely to the audience, rather than between characters. The characters possess an unbearable intimacy with us, and a disturbing distance from each other.
The latter is of peculiar effect between Macleod and Mills, who create a portrait of a foundering marriage (or is it a normal one?) by contrasting physical stasis and verbal lability. It’s an uncomfortable portrayal that prompts the question: how much can we truly know even those closest to us?
Neither actor achieved the measure of histrionic lyricism the script seems to call for. Despite the incompleteness of the characters and stories, the performances should feel complete. They didn’t to me, but lingered in the mind nonetheless. A similar haunting from Penman, who rises from the ashes to give a berserk tirade of grief and wrath, directed at a husband gone to an unjust war.
And the little girl’s wraith-like appearance is a masterstroke. It is, in fact, she who ends the play. After an extended speech from her father that gives this enigmatic work a meta-fictional twist, she sits at a piano and mangles a piece she is learning to play.
All art aspires to the condition of music, indeed.
The City is a provocative contemporary work, precisely the sort of theatre our mainstream companies should be programming. That Red Stitch continues to bring us such challenging theatre is something for which we can be thankful.