Take an astute selection of top-drawer talents, mix with intelligence, fresh energy, an eye to the future and it's not surprising the results are better than pleasing. The ingredients on this occasion include engaging, if unfamiliar, short works by Harold Pinter (A Kind of Alaska - 1984) and David Mamet (Reunion - 1976); confident directorial debuts by celebrity locals, actor Cate Blanchett and writer Andrew Upton; on-stage combustion from three excellent actors - Robert Menzies, Justine Clarke and Caroline Lee; and moody finely-tuned environments co-created by Ralph Myers (settings), Jo Briscoe (costumes), Nick Schlieper (lights), Chris Abrahams (music composition) and Sherre Delys (sound).
Reunion, with well-paced direction from Upton, opens this double bill. It's the story of a life-weathered ex-alcoholic's reunion with his somewhat prim daughter after too many years. The engagement starts quietly with more high cards apparently in the daughter's hand. Bernie, superbly played to a dazzling crescendo by Robert Menzies, gets to show there's more to him than sobriety, a single room and a job washing dishes. Justine Clark, yet to settle in as daughter Caroline, reluctantly concedes along the way that her own married life - and all that goes with it - is less than the ideal she initially presents. The pair battle it out politely, almost lovingly, and just a step short of trust. The balance of power tips one way, then the other, before squaring off eloquently in the end. Sad, true and - as Mamet must have it - unsentimental. Such is life.
Pinter's A Kind of Alaska takes its inspiration from the same oddball case medical studies of psychiatrist Oliver Sacks from which the film Awakenings was drawn. A teenager who fell into an inexplicable coma suddenly wakes up - straight up, eyes wide open - after being injected with a new medication. She's been off in her own 'kind of Alaska' for more than twenty years. Caroline Lee plays Deborah with an alertness the text probably proscribes, yet seems oddly unconvincing nonetheless. This time Menzies is cast as her doctor, with Justine Clark playing Deborah's now startlingly aged sister and, for some years now the doctor's wife.
Both Mamet and Pinter call for heightened modes of theatrical expression. Old-fashioned realism cannot contain the more complex poetics of either of these writers. A Kind of Alaska is particularly oblique. So much so, it is difficult to know whether this production just misses its elusive stylistic frequency, or whether the play itself suffers from an element of obscurantist wank. That said, Blanchett elicits compelling performances. Given the high degree of difficulty of Blanchett's debut dive into the directorial pool, it is an impressive and elegant 8/10 splash.
The thinking behind putting these two plays together is also of note, creating an evening that's greater in effect than the sum of its parts. In different ways, both plays explore the same themes of 'recovery' and 'time lost'. Both plays also happen to call for near identical settings: a single bed in an otherwise barren room. Ralph Myers inspired design heightens the 'thematic commonality' by creating a solitary, vulnerable square of white space surrounded on all sides by what appears to be the edges of an ocean of black water. In both productions, these emotionally isolated islands are attached to a slim single runaway - allowing for unobtrusive arrivals and departures. In the closing minutes of A Kind of Alaska we note the water rising, washing around the floor under the bed. Is the patient slipping back into her comatose state? Is there progress in science when so much of what life normally means to us - love and understanding - is already lost?
No sinking feeling at the end for the audience. If these astutely selected and thoughtfully produced plays are intended to flag what the Upton-Blanchett STC co-artistic directorship - beginning in 2008 - will be aiming for, a brimming future for mainstage theatre in Sydney lies ahead.
Sydney Theatre Company presents
by David Mamet
A KIND OF ALASKA
by Harold Pinter
Venue: The Wharf, Pier 4 Hickson Road Walsh Bay
Previews: 25 – 29 November at 8pm
Season: 30 November 2006 until 20 January 2007
Times: Tuesdays – Saturdays at 8pm, Mondays: 4, 11, 18 at 6:30pm (Mondays 25 December,
1 January and 8 January – no performance), Sundays: 7, 14, 20 January at 5pm
Matinees Wednesdays at 1pm (except 6 December) and Saturdays at 2pm
Night with actors: Monday 11 December at 6:30pm – post-show discussion with the cast and creative team
Tickets: $69 / $56 concession Matinee $62 / $51 concession
Bookings: (02) 9250 1777 or sydneytheatre.com.au/doublebill