Ashes to AshesThe new theatrical space at fortyfivedownstairs - which is even further downstairs than the old space used to be - is pregnant with ambiguity. It has been renovated, and its floorboards still have that mildly intoxicating smell of varnish to prove it, but its walls remain patchy with the forgotten history of the building, which evokes itself silently but definitely, like the layers of an oil painting. It is cavernous, with high ceilings and an open plan layout, but conducive to intimacy (and claustrophobia). It is a space of fiction and performance, which unfold across it, yet also part of the wider world, which we can see and hear thrashing around unabated outside in the rapidly fading twilight. In short, it is a space that is open to interpretation.

It is also undoubtedly the perfect space to stage the work of Harold Pinter. With its seemingly evident, but never quite definite, contours, and its narrative opacity, the playwright’s work finds its formal operations reflected in and complimented by those of the new space. In this case, the play in question is Pinter’s Ashes to Ashes, which proceeds on paper as a sometimes heated, sometimes playful, always disquietingly ominous conversation between a man, Devlin (Simon Stone), and a woman, Rebecca (Sara Gleeson). With barbed tongues and scarred souls, they are, we assume, most likely ex-lovers, though they could also be siblings or none of the above. Similarly hazy is the precise nature of their conversation. The play dabbles with various possibilities, rolling them around on the tip of its tongue, but only settles on one (and even then with great anxiety and uncertainty) in its final, terrible moments (moments that, like the rest of the play, aren’t particularly well realised here).

When we enter the space, descending two flights of stairs in single file, the world outside is still a deep, but darkening, blue; when we leave it, an hour later, night has (irrevocably?) fallen. (One is instantly reminded of Hitchcock’s Rope, which follows a similar trajectory: as veiled intimations of the Holocaust slowly coalesce into something more concrete and shocking, so too does dusk transform itself, in real-time, into night.) When we hear a siren wailing outside in the city, we assume it is for real, like the people vacuuming in the building next door whose feet can be seen across the way, only to have it revealed to us a few moments later that the siren was actually part of the fiction, pre-recorded and played on cue. Every sound thereafter - a dog barking, a car honking its horn - is registered by the audience as if it were question mark, as though we can’t be completely sure of it, just as we can’t be sure - at least not until the final moments, and even then not completely - of what is taking place on stage.

However, it is indicative of the production’s overall quality that the inherent qualities of the space do more for the play than director Sam Strong's interpretation of it does. This is in part because the carefully modulated ambiguity inherent in both the text and the space is, in short, not carefully modulated here; unchecked and ungrounded by (and perhaps even unaware of) the traumatic conception of insidious violence which lies at the heart of the play, the production proceeds as if the playwright’s themes were as ambiguous as the specifics of his narrative, which they aren’t. (Pinter’s plays have often been compared to paintings and pieces of music, a comparison which, while valid to a point, is inaccurate insofar as it seeks to frame them as pure form, which doesn’t exist.) The result of this confusion is not constructive or suggestive ambiguity, but rather quagmiric arbitrariness, with no emotional through line for the actors (who struggle accordingly, though Gleeson has her moments), no figural logic to their movements in and around the space, and no internal development of dramatic ideas that might conceivably lead to the play’s conclusion.

All this is a bit of a shame really, given the quality of some of the ingredients. What’s impressive about both the play and the new fortyfivedownstairs, however, is that both retain their interest despite the problems with the rest of the production. One walks away admiring Pinter’s skill as a playwright, which is never in doubt, and looking forward to one’s next visit to the space. It is pregnant, one realises, not only with ambiguity, but also with potential.

Ashes to Ashes
by Harold Pinter

Venue: fortyfivedownstairs | 45 Flinders Lane, Melbourne
Dates: Thursday 15 March to Sunday 18 March; Wednesday 21 March to Saturday 24 March
Time: 7:30pm
Tickets: $25 full / $20 conc.
Bookings: 9662 9966

Most read Melbourne reviews

Master of the deadpan, harsh host of Hard Quiz, and heartless interrogator on Hard Chat, making...

It doesn’t matter how much you know or care about the legality of the Essendon Football Club...

If you’re looking for a show that’s completely different and unlike anything you’ve seen in...

For fans of the musical, the problems and changes to the book and plot of Chess are as familiar...

Swapping 16th Century Verona for 1930s Hollywood, and a lengthy title for the short and snappy...