Belvoir Theatre recently celebrated its 30th birthday. The theatre was born after the demise of the wonderful Nimrod Theatre. It is named after the street it fronts as was the Nimrod, which started its life at what is now The Stables Theatre. The Nimrod was started by John Bell, Ken Horler and Richard Wherrett in 1970 and started a trend in presenting new Australian knockabout theatre, including some wonderful different style productions of Shakespeare. When it folded it seemed as if the theatre in Belvoir Street was to be demolished as part of a new development. A call went out for money and enough was raised to form Company B — Belvoir, which became the second major theatre company in Sydney. Over the past 30 years it has maintained a great standard and has presented many a challenging piece of contemporary theatre including making a major commitment to Indigenous theatre. Lately it has seemed to have gone in a direction of taking classics and rewriting them as modern plays. It worked brilliantly for The Wild Duck but I am not sure it needs to be done all the time. Which brings me to the two plays currently running there.
By Kit Brookman and Anne-Louise Sarks after A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen
Directed by Anne-Louise Sarks
A Doll’s House, written in 1879, is one of the most frequently produced European plays. It created enormous controversy at the time as it finishes with Nora walking out the door and not only leaving her husband but also her three children. I have seen two brilliant productions with Glenda Jackson in the West End and Janet McTeer on Broadway and understand why it still resonates so strongly. In Nora we see a modern family in a great set using a house frame with four rooms and we watch as the parents Nora (Blazey Best), a stay-at-home mum, and husband Torvald (Damien Ryan), a banker, communicate or not around their house. He talks about his work and complains about her spending money; she can only talk about the children, John and Emmy, but they both have a good relationship with the kids. Despite all this Nora is not happy, and out of nowhere she leaves — not because she or Torvald might be having affairs, nor because he might be abusing her but because she wants her own identity. She does not take the kids, leaving them with Torvald.
So this is basically the modern retelling of the original play. In the original, Nora is visited by an old friend, Kristine Linde. In the Belvoir’s production the second act takes us to a one-room structure of an old acquaintance, Helen (Linda Cropper).
As they quietly get drunk on gin they discuss why Nora has left and what she might do. This was a great idea but while I found the discussion around the reasons for her leaving were interesting I also found the direction of these two wonderful actresses so boring that I wondered if I were in another play. This led me to question: why do this? Why not stick with the original play which asked the questions and left the audience to have its own debate on what happened when Nora left home? I also found there was little internal logic in much of the second act which seemed to defeat the purpose of the production.
Directed by Adena Jacobs
Without knowledge of Sophocles’ play this would be a senseless exercise. As with Nora, this production starts where the original finishes. Oedipus (Peter Carroll) has blinded himself after killing his mother and his only company is his daughter and half-sister Antigone (Andrea Demetriades). She acts as his carer and companion and at times provides him with his more earthy needs. While I am still not sure if we really need to see an idea of what happened after a play that was written in 429BC, it was still an interesting exercise. I imagine that it is a play of retribution for Oedipus, who blinded himself in remorse after having unknowingly killed his father and married his mother who then killed herself.
The play’s set is a single black plastic chair set on black carpet against a backdrop of a wall bracket covered in heavy duty industrial plastic. It opens in a very long full blackout which I imagine is putting us in Oedipus’s place of blindness. As the lights slowly rise we see he is on an oxygen tank. He says little. After another blackout, this time accompanied by a very loud cacophony of noise he is joined and washed by his daughter Antigone. She is ravishingly beautiful and wears a glorious red gown. After washing him she proceeds to play games with him. He tells her the old sphinx riddle which he has solved: “What is the creature that walks on all four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three in the evening?’ Man. She taunts him and plays games with him making sure that because he is blind she wins.
Not much more happens, but at least with these two fine actors it is always interesting. But as with Nora I am not sure that this production has taken us any further than the original play. Next year’s season is about to be announced, and I am hoping that we may not have too many of these types of shows although I almost enjoyed both of these.
Frank Barnes is retired and enjoying his life in the Paradise of Tuncurry but is most angry that Opera Australia has announced Alan Jones in the cast of next year’s Anything Goes. This means he will not see it.