Some theatre each day keeps the doctor away…

Review: Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk

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Program Review:


Oh, Belvoir.  Like a parent feels a great sense of disappointment after receiving news that their only child has gone on a murderous and suicidal rampage at an American high school, so do I feel similarly about you, Belvoir.  We’ve had a good run, these past few months – I haven’t tripped on your stairs, I haven’t bashed my head on obstacles dangling from your ridiculously low ceilings – indeed, it would seem on the surface to be the perfect relationship.  But then you had to go and ruin it all, didn’t you?  For you, dear Belvoir, the status quo wasn’t a property of the current situation but a challenge, one that you rose to quite magnificently.  Oh yes, I can appreciate the fine art with which you tried to sever our relationship, to break this status quo, but you underestimated the strength of my will.  You didn’t think I’d come back, did you?  I would have thought that in our months together you would’ve learnt that I’m not one to let things go that easily.

I came back, dear Belvoir, and I have had my victory.  What’s that?  You say you have no idea what I’m talking about?  Let me refresh you.  Last Sunday I came to you, excited, exhilarated, nervous – it was our first date, you see, our first date with your baby, that child that you hid from me the first few times but now you trust me enough to reveal them to the world.  Your Downstairs theatre was a nervous child, but it held its own against the larger theatre Upstairs, even with the measures you took to sabotage our meeting.  I cannot fathom why you would stoop to levels as low as your ceiling, but stoop you did, and what emerged was a Quasimodo without the inner beauty.

“I’d like to pick up my ticket for Lady Macbeth,” I said.  Things were going well.  I hadn’t met your child yet, but that would come soon.

“Certainly, sir,” your female minion said.  Polite, as always.

“And can I buy a program too?”

Are you listening?  This is the important part: “No, we’ve run out I’m afraid, but we’ll have more on Tuesday.”

Oh, the pain, dear Belvoir, like a paper cut straight to my heart.  You know I like programs, you know that I’m virtually obsessed with them, and yet this is how you treat me?  I recoiled in shock – bumping into the woman behind me causing her to spill champagne everywhere, causing her date to jump backwards into another person, who in turn fell backwards and so on – like a set of dominos they all fell until the entire foyer had been massacred, dear Belvoir.  Perhaps it wasn’t that dramatic, but my emotional response was of the same magnitude, even if my physical reaction was not.

“No…no programs?” I spluttered.  This pain I felt – suddenly I had a mindset into these murderous American teenagers, a mindset that I relished, my hate seething from me in wave after psychic wave.

And so we jump in this little story of mine to yesterday, the Saturday after, when I once again visited you for no other reason than to buy a program, which I did – there were plenty behind the counter.  Was that so hard, dear Belvoir?  I think not.  You were this close, and when I say this I indicate with my fingers a distance smaller than the thickness of your program, to feeling my wrath – the fact that I was physically weak and had no weapons on me was of no consequence!  You would do well to heed this warning, dear Belvoir.

Voice change!

Seriously, the program was three double sided A4 pages stapled together, printed on what I can only assume was the lowest quality setting on the printer, the one right above “black and white” but under “photos that actually look like something”.  Could you not have printed some off during the show?  I think you could’ve printed off at least ten copies, and that’s a very low estimate.  But now we can continue.  This is why the review was delayed – I had to wait for the program before I could give Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk a full review.


Above we have the cast list and some notes from the writer.  On the next page, notes from the director and the profiles of everyone involved, and then more profiles, and more profiles, and then some acknowledgements, and then some advertisements.  I mentioned that it was only three A4 pages stapled together – this in itself is not necessarily a bad thing, but in this case, a case when even the staples were not satisfactorily placed, it detracts from the overall experience.

As for the writer’s and director’s notes, they were interesting – already Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is ahead of Let the Sunshine when it comes to extra information in a program.

Who wins the longest column award?  Don Reid.  Congratulations, Don.

In the blurb at the back for B Sharp, the people who help with the productions in the Downstairs Theatre, there is this: “This season is made possible through the dedication and passion of the independent artist involved, …”  Perhaps this is why there were no programs – there is only one “artist” available to do it.  Or it’s a typo.  I prefer the former theory.

All in all, it was a pleasant program.  Apart from the issues with paper and printing quality, there were some nice notes, and some nice pictures too.

The score?  5/10

But wait a minute – I had to wait a week for this program and go back to get it, and so the score must reflect this.  Indeed, I think I have to halve the score to account for this.

And so the score, adjusted for the acquisition difficulties is: 2.5/10

Play Review:

Katerina (Alice Parkinson) stares daggers at someone with a mobile phone in the audience

Katerina (Alice Parkinson) stares daggers at someone with a mobile phone in the audience

This was my first time in Belvoir’s Downstairs Theatre, and while I expected it to be small (I already knew it only seated about 80 people), I didn’t expect it to be that small.  But as we all know, it’s not the size of your theatre, it’s what you do with it that counts.  And so the question to be asked is, did Belvoir Downstairs satisfy me – did it wine and dine me, did it take me to its place and invite me up for an innocent coffee or two, did it set the mood properly, did it have no weird fetishes that would freak me out, and most importantly, did it respect me in the morning?

Yes, yes, yes, no, and maybe.  There was some leakage, but nothing serious such as a permanent drool or anal leakage, but merely the sound of water running through pipes on the wall of the theatre every now and then.  And this review has gone into the gutter faster than a thirsty homeless guy after a storm.  (Complaints here.)

But yes, I could hear water running through the pipes every now and then.  Perhaps that was part of the play, although I can’t see why.  Either way it wasn’t too distracting, but it gives you an idea of what it was like inside – imagine a basement that has had three rows of seats spontaneously transported into it, and that’s about it really.

So I take my seat and out pops the director (or whoever it is that sits in the box and controls the play) from her little enclosure: “Please don’t put your bag in front of the door in case I have to get out, thank you.”  She pops back in.  The play hasn’t even started yet and I’ve annoyed the director – going well so far!  As I recover from the affront on my bag, a dashing girl squeezes past me to take a seat closer to the centre.  Not that a dashing girl in the theatre is an unusual sight – on the contrary, I find that many a girl dashes away from me after I flash them (complaints) – but this particular bewitcher had with her a bundle of papers and pen, held together firmly with a bull clip.  A critic, perhaps?  Could it be that I’d found a kindred spirit, a journeywoman on this analytical adventure?

As I was trying to surreptitiously glance at her pieces of paper, looking for any clues as to what they may be for, the play started.

Sergei (Conrad Coleby) and Katerina

Sergei (Conrad Coleby) and Katerina

It soons become apparent, unless you’re not listening, that Zinovy (Jason Langley) is going away for awhile, leaving his father (Don Reid) to look after his wife Katerina (Alice Parkinson), in Mtsensk, a town in Russia.  Moments later we find Katerina’s servant (Amy Kersey) being accosted by the new farmhand, Sergei (Conrad Coleby).  She sends him and his second brain packing, but not before Sergei tempts her with his impressive physique, stripping off his shirt and parading in front of her.  As Coleby reveals his torso, not only do I notice his muscles, but I was also taken by something more amazing: here was a farmhand, in Russia, presumably some time ago, with Calvin Klein (or some brand starting with a C) underwear!  From this I deduced that Sergei was a time traveler, sent from the future to seduce Katerina.

I deduced wrong.  (Note to the actors: either keep your pants up or get some authentic undies.  That is all.)  But while the husband is away the farmhands will play, and while Sergei may not have been a time traveler, he nonetheless manages to time travel his way into Katerina’s pants, setting off a chain of events with quite dire consequences.  I couldn’t help but smile to myself when Sergei was seducing Katerina, though, who was resisting (but not really), and as he wrapped his hands around her face and tried to turn her head towards him, the image I had in my mind was of trying to give a cat a tablet, desperately gripping their skull and forcing their jaw open as they struggle with all their might against you.  I’m such a romantic, aren’t I?

WARNING: Spoilers follow, please don’t read on and blame me later for ruining the story.

Open wide and take your tablets!  It's for your own good...

Open wide and take your tablets! It's for your own good...

Katerina is in love, you see, with the handsome Sergei, but her father in law finds out and bans her from seeing him, also punishing poor Sergei.  What can be done?  Why, feed the father in law some mushrooms that aren’t suited for humans, of course.  This is murder number one.  Then the husband returns – this is murder number two, and definitely the most ineresting.

Zinovy returns to find Sergei in Katerina’s bedroom, and tempers flare, until Katerina begins to strangle him, Sergei helping by trying to hold his legs tight so they can’t kick around, then finishing him off later on.  It wasn’t the murder that was particularly interesting, but the audience’s reaction to it – some people laughed.  Now I’m not suggesting that there can never be any theatrical fun to be had when depicting a murder, but in this case it was played with great sincerity, Zinovy’s legs flailing about, and much huffing and grunting from all characters involved – and yet some people were laughing.  It is a curious reaction I think, to find humour in the darkest of moments – a husband being killed for his wife’s infidelity.  I think laughter is often a defense mechanism for situations that our brains can’t handle – those who can’t handle the brutality of this murder instead chuckle away.

The same thing happens all the time in the plays I see – another example being Travesties by the Sydney Theatre Company.  At points in that play, the main character, Henry Carr, recalls in a quite distressed way his experiences in the war.  And yet even in that performance people were chuckling away – not as many as would during in the actual comedic moments, but still enough to pique my curiousity.

Katerina (Alice Parkinson)

Katerina (Alice Parkinson)

Perhaps the laughter is a defense mechanism, and perhaps it is also to break the silence – while the sounds of the struggle were evident, there was no dialogue, and I get the feeling that a lack of dialogue is by default an uncomfortable position for an audience (though I have no idea why, nor do I know whether it is the proper position to have), especially if there’s nothing humorous going on during it.  At the start of Let the Sunshine, a character comes out and silently tries to deal with the enigma that is an Ikea flat-pack, and that provided many a giggle – but that was different, of course, as it was intended to be humorous.  Or perhaps it was an emotional disconnection.  If an actor isn’t creating enough emotion for the audience to pick up on, then maybe that is why they laugh.  If the audience doesn’t know exactly what emotion they are seeing, then a confusion could lead to a few guffaws, maybe.

Then again, in When the Rain Stops Falling, there were plenty of silent moments where you could’ve heard a pin drop onto shag carpet, but in those moments the emotional intensity was enough to make me almost shed a few tears (even though I didn’t because I’m a man and I’m not allowed to cry, right?), so that emotional connection must have been there, an emotional connection that wasn’t there at all as I watched Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.  (I think there is a much larger discussion to be had about “laughing in non-humourous parts”, though.)

And so the husband is murdered, a moment that, while I could recognise the horror of, nevertheless I felt nothing when watching it.  Perhaps this is a sign that I’m a psychopath, but considering my squeamish reaction to Nathan Hauritz in the cricket recently dislocating his finger after trying to catch a particularly fast ball, and then seeing the replay of his bent finger over and over again, perhaps not.  Logically, I knew the motivation for the murder – Katerina’s desperate, obsessive love for Sergei, the one man that could bring her out of her boredom of being cooped up in her estate, unable to bear a child to her husband, even though it is the husband that is infertile, and having nothing to do but the most mundane of tasks that are not only mundane but ultimately pointless.  Logically, I knew why the husband lost his temper, and why he started to threaten both Katerina and Sergei.  Logically, I know why Sergei helped to kill Zinovy, or at least I think I do.  Logically, I knew that being strangled is a horrible and brutal way to die.

And yet I felt nothing – I wonder if there is more indicative of my state that day in the theatre, which, even though I may have given a distinctly different impression in my rambling above, was actually, on the whole, rather enthusiastic about seeing this play – I had no idea what to expect, but I was excited to find out.  Or was it more indicative of a failing of the play, of the actors, of the script?  It is frustrating that I cannot point to one part exactly and find in that part what it was that caused my apathy.  Seeing the dead husband’s chest rising and falling quickly and noticeably when he was, well, dead, probably didn’t help, but I don’t imagine that would cause such things.

Katerina (Alice Parkinson) and Sergei (Conrad Coleby)

Katerina (Alice Parkinson) and Sergei (Conrad Coleby)

But we shall move on, I think.  With the husband 1.8 metres underground, Katerina visits a lawyer to help settle the estate.  The lawyer, played by the same actor who played Zinovy (the husband), had me hanging on his every word, like a rock climber dangling from the HOLLYWOOD sign.  In fact, all the performances were excellent, with the exception of the young nephew played by Celeste Dodwell, who seeemed a bit over the top.  Although the character was meant to be an excitable young boy, so perhaps the performance was not over the top but off the mark.  Just like I had trouble with the nephew, though, so did Katerina – the lawyer informs her that the nephew is entitled to half of the estate.

He’s the next to go, with both Sergei and Katerina doing the deed once again, but this time getting caught and landing themselves in a cold prison cell.  Sergei confesses, thus sealing their fate.

Before the show started we were informed by the staff that everyone would need to clear out of the theatre to allow some “theatrical magic to take place”.  Back in the foyer I found myself again – was that a program that I saw on the counter?  No, just a trick of the eye.  I take a book out of my bag, The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, a book taking me forever to read, and lean against one of the columns.  Moments later, the dashing critic comes and sits at a table near me and begins to scribble some more notes down.  I am desperate to know what she is writing, but I resist the urge.  It is a torturous few minutes, until we receive the call to go back into the theatre.  Unfortunately, that was about the most tension that I experienced that night, the second act providing very little compared to the first.

Sergei (Conrad Coleby) and Katerina (Alice Parkinson)

Sergei (Conrad Coleby) and Katerina (Alice Parkinson)

I walk back in and take my seat, but not before letting Miss Dashing past, careful not to put my bag in front of the director’s door, and look around to see what theatrical magic has taken place.  Both Sergei and Katerina are on stage as you walk in, obviously still in the prison, but apart from that nothing has changed.  Unless there were some light changes or something, this theatrical magic was not worth leaving my seat for.  All this doesn’t reflect on the play, however.  Onto the second half.

Katerina’s had a child – she was pregnant for part of the first half, and now she has to give it away.  Sergei, even though the child is his, doesn’t seem to care.  At this point, I think the play should have ended.  I of course realise that it is all that a writer can do to stop themselves from fiddling with another writer’s work, but in this case my urge to fiddle has bubbled up to the surface, and there must be a reason for this.  It was clear at this point that Sergei was no longer in love with Katerina, and that he in fact wanted very little to do with her.  Clear to me, at least.

The next forty or so minutes is spent ramming this point home.

The couple begins a long march across Russia, headed for some distant town, accompanied by some other prisoners and a charismatic guard who offers favours for cash.  One such favour that is bestowed upon Katerina for a few dollars (and by dollars I mean the appropriate Russian currency of which I am ignorant, like most things in life) is to be able to walk next to Sergei, rather than in the strict single file that is usually enforced.  As the prisoners walk across the freezing roads of Russia, it is at this point that I suddenly realise that I feel colder than I did before – was this because my body had decided to stop heating my limbs for a while, or because some of this “theatrical magic” was turning the air conditioning up?  Or were the actor’s shiverings enough to trick my mind.

Everybody Conga!

Everybody Conga!

Sergei, however, as other ideas, and quickly turns his attentions to a young minx that decides that she likes him.  Katerina isn’t too pleased about this, as you can imagine.  More wailing and gnashing of teeth and a climactic fight between Katerina and Sonia (the third point of this love triangle), a fight that ends up with both of them drowning, and so then the play finishes.

Usually I don’t go through the details of the story, but I decided to this time because of how I felt about the second act.  I think the play probably would have been much stronger if it had finished when I suggested, perhaps with a few extra minutes to drive home the idea that Sergei no longer cares about Katerina (and of course without the interval).  But a whole forty minutes more?  It wasn’t that it was boring to watch – at times I was enjoying myself, especially the banter that the guard had with his prisoners – but I left the theatre feeling that it was all so…unnecessary.  I realise that Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk was originally a novel, and this is an adaptation of that, so this long march and the events surrounding it may have been better realised in the book.  I would assume that a lot of the details of the book had to be discarded to shorten it enough to put on stage, and maybe that is why I felt it was unnecessary, maybe something was lost in the translation.  Katerina’s death did provide a finality to the play (after all, with the main character dead, not much else can happen), but a good story doesn’t always need a proper ending.

Story issues aside, the set was minimal but effective, and the tiny stage didn’t hamper the play at all – I found no problems imagining the icy roads and biting winds as the actors walked down the long road (making circuits of the stage), or the raging waters around the ferry in the final scene.

In the end, I wasn’t bored watching this play, and at times enjoyed myself – but I was never exhilarated by it, nor did I have any real emotional connection.

The score? 6/10

And I never did find out if Miss Dashing was a critic or not.

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk by Robert Couch, Adapted from the novella by Nikolia Leskov.  At Belvoir Street Theatre Downstairs until July 26.  With Conrad Coleby, Celeste Dodwell, Amy Kersey, Alice Parkinson, Don Reid, and Jason Langley.  Directed by Joseph Couch.


Written by epistemysics

July 20, 2009 at 2:44 pm

Posted in Theatre Reviews

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