Some theatre each day keeps the doctor away…

Review: Dealing With Clair

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Program Review:

Dealing With Clair - Title Page

Dealing With Clair - Title Page

Let me take you, dear reader, on a trip to a little place that the locals know as Guilt.  Guilt is a small seaside town in the northeast of New South Wales, a town unique to not just its state, but the entire nation of Australia, unique because its local council is not funded by taxes, instead acquiring its revenue through a voluntary donation system.  It is a utopia of sorts, the streets clean of rubbish, the houses well maintained, the nightlife exciting but not hyperactive, the arts culture small but central to the community, the police presence felt but never needed – these are the qualities that any small coastal village would aspire to.

The residents of this place – they refer to themselves as Guiltmongers – are some of the most friendly and accommodating people you are likely to meet.  The whole town, apart from John the Agoraphobe (who the citizens of Guilt have taken under their collective wing), make their way to the medium-sized church on Sundays where they sing songs of praise and listen intently to the sermon that Father Lee (whose immigrant family was accepted at once into the comforting folds of Guilt) makes, each week reminding them of their duties to God, each other, and Guilt.  On Saturdays they gather at the markets to support the nearby farmers, perusing the fine wares on offer, often purchasing a pumpkin for the Sunday Roast, or, if it’s in season, a lovely punnet of fresh strawberries to share with the family.  After the markets the populace will gather in one of the many expansive parks in the area to spend the afternoon eating, talking, and recovering from the long working week – not that any of the workers complain.

But something is rotten in the town of Guilt – and it isn’t the vegetables that were thrown by the unkempt outsider who was in the audience of the recent production of Hamlet by the Guilt Theatre Company, which after the raucous opening night went on to have an extremely successful season, performances that were described by John the Agoraphobe (who watches each play from a telecast that the members of the town set up especially for him) as “more mesmerising than Father Lee’s sermons”.  No, it is something more sinister, although not entirely unrelated to the theatre.  The first mysterious death happened when Hamlet, or the actor who played him, was found dead in his dressing room after the final performance.  While Frederick von Hillsburg was a talented actor, there were rumours in the community that he wasn’t donating his fair share to the town’s upkeep.

Next was the village stock broker, who fell on hard times in this financial crisis and was also rumoured to be having his own personal recession in his voluntary taxes.  He was found in his office, slumped over his desk, blood over his statements, stabbed with his antique letter opener 14 times.  The butcher’s son, who had moved into his own house only the year before, was discovered washed up on the beach with a bag tied around his head.  The latest victim was the town’s interior designer, who was found hanging from the a statue in the main square, a post-mortem mastectomy having been performed, as well as a large dollar sign cut into her torso.

The town of Guilt

The town of Guilt

Ask the locals about these disturbing events and they will ignore you or change the topic of conversation to a happier one.  Press the subject further and they will politely excuse themselves.

What, I hear you ask, does this have to do with the program for Dealing With Clair?  While I have not had the misfortune of visiting the town of Guilt (a friend living there feeds me the information), I nevertheless came close to a Guilt trip when retrieving my program from the box office of the Griffin Theatre.  I walk in and there it is – the holder for the programs – front and centre and drawing my eyes.  Yes, they have programs, they’re there, they’re plentiful, I definitely won’t go without one tonight, unlike Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.  Time seems to stay still but I find that I’ve closed the distance between my original position and my destination and have plucked a program from its kin, like taking a kitten from its litter.  Next to it I see a small container with gold coins in it and my brain registers that the kitten will cost a pretty penny or two or ten.  I was prepared for this, though, as I had already brought my wallet out from my bag.  Opening the coin compartment my heart pole-vaults – I can see only scraps of silver.  My mind races: did I bring a gold coin?  Wait, there is one, but that’s two dollars, and I’m not willing to part with that amount for two pieces of paper.  I search for thirty seconds until I find a one dollar coin, thankfully, and deposit it in that receptacle, most likely bought from a market in Guilt.  The disaster was narrowly averted.

I say this as a public service – never, and I mean never, go to a theatre such as Griffin without a one dollar coin.  My overwhelming urge not to be embarrassed is only eclipsed by my overwhelming urge to have a program, and if push had come to socially awkward shove, I would have had to drop a five dollar note in the container and take change from it, all the while in front of a box office attendant, probably a descendent of a Guiltmonger, her eyes boring into my skull as if to say, “I’m looking for a shred of humanity inside you but I’m having trouble finding it”.

I made my donation, though, and will sleep peacefully tonight, knowing that I will have the Guiltmonger’s wrath pass over me.

So what do you get for this mental and emotional anguish?  Some director’s notes, which are quite interesting, that talk about how the play was updated for these modern times.  Also, the profiles, with headshots for everyone, unlike the program for Horrific Acts for Charity.  And that’s it.

Dealing With Clair - Profiles

Dealing With Clair - Profiles

The Longest Column Award goes to Boris Brkic – congratulations Boris, you win the opportunity to stay alive for another year (the Guilt Theatre Company is very competitive).

Disappointing overall, but it had some redeeming qualities.

The score?  3.5/10

Play Review:

Clair (Laura Brent) tells Miss Patsy she's upside down

Clair (Laura Brent) tells Miss Patsy she's upside down

Dealing With Clair.  A name that to some may suggest a play involving the schooling of new croupiers by a teacher who goes by the name of Clair.  These people would be wrong.  All people, however, may be interested to know that there is a spoiler warning on this review – so be warned.

The set is a small one – as is the stage, really.  After climbing up the steep steps that you’ll probably be abseiling down later on, you come across a room on stage, walled off from the rest of the auditorium by a series of elastic ropes that are strung around four poles on each corner of the set.  Think of a boxing ring, but with thinner ropes, a not exactly square fighting area, and ropes that extend up to the ceiling, and you’ll have a fairly good idea.  Inside this area are packing boxes and a long leather bench/stool/(I don’t know what it’s called – furniture isn’t my forte or my piano).

First we meet Clair (Laura Brent), a real estate agent, in her apartment – she’s on the phone talking to someone, the conversation muted out every now and then by a train coming past.  Next we encounter Liz (Sarah Becker) and Mike (Ed Wightman), a married couple who are trying to sell their house, a four bedroom (the fourth bedroom without a window) building that should fetch a good price, although they stress to Clair that they want to “act honourably”.  Also with them is the nanny, Anna (Kelly Paterniti), who spends the majority of the time in a constant state of undress.

Liz (Sarah Becker) and Anna (Kelly Paterniti)

Liz (Sarah Becker) and Anna (Kelly Paterniti)

What follows is a meandering walk through the supposed decay of middle-class morals and a slow stroll through the story itself.  It’s been two days since I’ve seen Dealing With Clair, and I’m having trouble remembering what happened in the first half of the show (at least what happened in regards to the story).  Or rather, I’m having trouble remembering if there were any important plot points that were developed.  Looking back, I can’t help but feel that most of the first half was merely a set-up for the second.  “But that’s how it’s supposed to be,” you may say, “where does the second half of a show come from if not from following on from the first?”

This is true.  But.  Maybe I was cynical – perhaps Friday nights for me (I saw the play on a Friday) are my evenings to rebel against normal storytelling forms, or maybe the play is itself to blame.  I mean, I wasn’t bored, but I wasn’t particularly invested in what was happening on the stage in front of me.  A tradesman, Ashley (Josh McConville), for example, comes in partway through the first half to fix the window sill that is rotting, meanwhile talking to Anna while he does his job, explaining to her that “it’s not the sills they need to be worried about, here, look up here, that cornice there is rotted too…this whole building is decaying.”  (I’m paraphrasing.)  A few points about this scene:

Point the first: hearing the house described as “crumbling and decaying, the rot is everywhere” made my eyes do a 360 degree roll in my head.  This revelation about the house being rotten comes soon after the owners of the house (the couple Liz and Mike), have decided to disregard the offer they received from their northern buyers (even though they originally agreed to take the first offer), in favour of James (Boris Brkic), a mysterious man who is offering them cash, and a higher price as well.  Watch the moral compass of the couple go haywire, and at the same time be force fed a metaphor that parallels this with their house!  The wife of the northern couple has a “crumbling spine”.  Many characters, including James, talk about “vanishing points” in the play (as if the morals of the characters are heading off to a vanishing point).  Maybe it is just me, but these metaphors seemed so…blatant, that they got in the way of the play, my mind mentally mocking (or perhaps merely focusing) on the metaphor rather than concentrate on the words being spoken.  I cannot complain too much, though, as at least there was obvious subtext within the play, unlike some other offerings I’ve seen recently that don’t even seem to try.

James (Boris Brkic)

James (Boris Brkic)

Point the second: the scene, while providing some of the comic highlights of the night, did not actually provide much more than the metaphor itself.  Yes, it was a set-up for the second half, but it was around three or four minutes of set-up for a ten second payoff, the wife, Liz, in the second half noticing a light coming from outside through the rotting cornice, then continuing on her way.  So I ask myself, why was I sitting through four minutes of dialogue, amusing as it was, but only tangentially related to the story, for such a small return afterwards?  It felt like Chekhov’s gun had been planted on stage, only to, at the climactic moment, fire a banner saying “BANG!” rather than a bullet.

So yes, much of the first half felt like it was set-up for the second half that didn’t produce a good enough return on investment.  The only way it could’ve redeemed itself was with a health dose of tension, and it had very little of this to provide.  I think this is partly due to Boris Brkic’s performance as James, the mysterious man who is somewhat sinister but overflowing with charm as well.  While the character was well realised by Mr. Brkic, I think there were some points in the play, some crucial points, where James may have gone too far in saying something to Clair, for example, that just didn’t quite hit the mark for me, so I was left with a feeling of realisation that the character had overstepped his mark, rather than actual tension.

The playwright, Martin Crimp, whose most recent work, The City, (Dealing With Clair was his first successful play) is currently showing at the Sydney Theatre Company (or has just closed), seems to have a fondness for repetition.  “A man like me could exploit this situation,” is one line that gets spoken a few times.  The problem with this is that the repetition doesn’t add much to the play, unlike say, the repetition in When the Rain Stops Falling, which was beautifully done in such a way that the same line spoken twice at different points in the play had such a varied impact from each other (one time comedic, another time shocking and tragic), that the repeated lines in Dealing With Clair seemed very mild in comparison.

Clair (Laura Brent) and James (Boris Brkic)

Clair (Laura Brent) and James (Boris Brkic)

Back with the scene invovling the tradesman and the Italian nanny, Anna: the tradesman’s wife is also called Anna, and she is half-Italian, or so we find out (interestingly, the tradesman wasn’t wearing a wedding ring, even though James, the mysterious man with the large amount of cash to buy the house, who claimed to have a wife, did have a wedding ring).  This was a weird moment – after all, what a coincidence that the tradesman’s wife and the housekeeper should share the same name and background in a play like this!  What a small world it is that we live in.  You would think this would mean something, right?  Apparently it doesn’t.  Was it some type of red herring, and if it was, what was it drawing the attention away from?  Otherwise the presence of this “coincidence” seems, to me at least, useless.

In the second half, the only two points of tension in which I actually felt something, was in a card game between James and Clair, with him slamming his hand down on the cardboard box they had set up to play, shouting “snap!”, right before he kidnapped/murdered/did whatever he did to her; and during a phone call that James has with who I assumed to be a parent of Clair’s, anxious to find out where she was, if she was still alive, and so on.  Even saying that, there wasn’t all that much tension in the latter scene, as James seemed to be having some sort of breakdown, or at least was very frustrated, which puzzled me, as he had been so calm and collected previously, and showed no signs of this mental fragility.  Perhaps this is Mr. Brkic’s fault as a performer, perhaps it is the fault of the text, or perhaps it is a combination of both, but this scene, which seemed to be the most climactic of all (after all, having the “villain” in Clair’s apartment (at least I assumed it was) after having murdered her (presumably) should be very dramatic) didn’t actually feel that climactic.  All that being said, though, the former scene involving the card game was perfectly played by both Ms. Brent and Mr. Brkic – if only the rest of the play could’ve had the same impact as that!

The latter scene described above was the penultimate scene of the play, whereas a scene involving Toby (Josh McConville) and Liz and Mike was the ultimate.  After the climax of the previous scene, which was (even with what I have mentioned above) still very dramatic, this scene seemed like a dry retch after a full heave (and I mean that in a completely non-disparaging way).  We find Toby, the real-estate agent sent in to replace Clair after she has gone missing, celebrating with Liz and Mike on the sale of their house for a price even higher than James had originally offered them.  All seem happy, although sad at Clair’s unfortunate disappearance, their main concern with the locks, as Clair had a key to the house with her when she was taken.  It is decided that the locks will be changed before the new owners move in.  I could see what Crimp (the playwright) was trying to do here, trying to show the moral decay of this middle-class couple, how they refused to care about Clair, refused to really acknowledge the dreadful things that had happened.  But I didn’t particularly care.  Perhaps I’m suffering under some of my own moral decay, but Crimp, to me anyways, was suggesting that this couple were monstrous because they continued to try and sell their house after their original agent was kidnapped?

Mike (Ed Wightman) and Anna (Kelly Paterniti)

Mike (Ed Wightman) and Anna (Kelly Paterniti)

Issues with the text aside, the set design (William Bobbie Stewart) was inspired.  The elastic bands surrounding the set gave it an almost prison-like feel, as if the characters couldn’t escape from it.  The only quibble with the set I have is in the penultimate scene, where James cuts through some of the bands, sending them snapping back to the rear of the stage – this seemed a bit, well, weird to me, and unnecessary.  But apart form that, the set was well designed.

Before the play, in the foyer, we were informed that there would be strobe lights during the performance – little did I know that we would be getting an antique version of strobe lighting, possibly a technique used in nightclubs in the 19th century, invovling a light source behind a slow-moving ceiling fan.  (It was, however, effective in the two scenes in the play it was used.)

Overall, fine performances from most of the actors, and a mostly fine performance from Mr. Brkic, great set design, interesting lighting, sound that worked quite well (especially the overbearing trains, which helped create a sense of unease, even though this sense was dissipated because the actors or text didn’t catch the ball), and a somewhat interesting play to see.  This play was first performed in England in 1988, and this production at the Griffing theatre is the Australian debut – I have a feeling it took this long to be performed here because it was nothing spectacular – good, but not great.

It is interesting to note that Dealing With Clair is about middle-class moral decay (part of it, anyways), while The City is about a middle-class disconnect, which is much the same thing depending on the angle you view it from.  Twenty years difference between them and still Martin Crimp is writing about the same things?  One can only hope the plays in the intervening years dealt with different topics.

The score?  7/10

Dealing With Clair by Martin Crimp.  With Sarah Becker, Laura Brent, Boris Brkic, Josh McConville, Kelly Paterniti, and Ed Wightman.  Directed by Cristabel Sved.  Playing at the Griffin Theatre until 15th August.

Curious coincidence time: at the beginning of the second half, loud music comes from the speakers, music that I had never heard in my life before.  Later that night, on the train ride home, I turn my radio on on my MP3 player and what do I hear on Triple J?  The same song.  Spooky:


Written by epistemysics

August 9, 2009 at 3:19 pm

Posted in Theatre Reviews

5 Responses

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  1. Its called synchronisity 😛 Get with the times play man.

    Also, why don’t you ever see good plays anymore? 


    August 10, 2009 at 5:34 am

  2. I don’t know – they just don’t seem to be making them any more? Maybe I have high standards. Is that a bad thing? Hopefully not.


    August 15, 2009 at 12:44 pm

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