Drowned by history

By Rhonda Dredge

Two plays recently performed in the CBD vividly demonstrate the difference between prose and drama by resting too obviously on their historical settings.

In prose, a writer has a lot of mileage to set the scene, narrate on behalf of characters and generally give reality a twist so the reader can visualise the story world of the work.

Theatre is more immediate. Actors’ bodies do most of the telling and it is the positions they adopt in relation to each other that engage the audience.

The Haunting, a play adapted from the ghost stories of Charles Dickens, has all of the credentials for a good, suspenseful experience but the production at the Athenaeum failed to break out of its prose constraints.

The audience came expecting to be scared and there were plenty of sound effects, dramatic lighting and even musty smells to create the right kind of atmosphere yet the logic of the story failed to grip.

The play was adapted from a number of stories and was aimed at giving audiences a flavour of Dickens. Cameron Daddo and Gig Clarke play two fusty gentlemen who argue for too long about what is real and what is not.

One of the gentlemen has come to assess the value of a library in a house on the moors. As a setting, the bleak room piled high with antiquarian tomes rings a strong Dickens’ bell. That is the trouble. The play tries to push all the right buttons instead of leaving some space for the imagination of the contemporary viewer who is quite familiar by now with the genre and needs no reminders.

Shrine, one of three plays written by prose specialist Tim Winton, has similar problems coming to terms with a contemporary audience. Winton’s work has been soundly criticised by literary critics for the way he represents women in stereotyped positions.

This criticism is based on the premise that a writer should transgress typical and traditional gender roles to provide new definitions and understandings.

Shrine was recently performed by Kin Collective at FortyFive Downstairs, a revival after its premier in Perth four years ago. The theatre company has campaigned to have the play included on the VCE syllabus because it deals with the issues of teen drinking and violence.

June, the rape victim, is played by Tenielle Thompson. She works as a check-out chick and is of a lower socio-economic status than the hero. After a drinking binge on the beach, June is raped by two of the hero’s mates, played by Keith Brockett and Nick Clark, two more unlikely rapists you would be unlikely to encounter.

Winton likes to play the heart strings and actors love to emote. The hero saves the victim but is killed soon after in a car accident, creating narrative space for long monologues by the grieving dad and the rape victim that unfortunately wash over you like frothy drinks.

Winton is at his best when it comes to the sea. It is his most honest character. After the rape, June swims out beyond the headland into the deep, dark ocean. It is night and she is immersed in black.

The hero rescues her on his board and his recount, although delivered by Christian Taylor in a faux-innocent style complete with daggy shorts and haircut, is moving for its grand sweep of landscape.

For a few moments the audience is swept out to sea with the teenagers as they brave the elements and take their chances together.

It will be up to the next generation of thinkers to do the same and put Winton’s play into the historical perspective it deserves.

The Haunting is on at the Athenaeum until July 1.

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