Attempts on Her Life is Martin Crimp’s best known work for the stage, but to call it a “play” would almost be missing the point, at least to the extent that one can ascertain the point of this elusive, highly intellectual piece of theatre.
Attempts on Her Life is an unconventional work, to say the least. Anti-narrative, anti-character, anti-structure… at times one feels almost as though it is anti-theme as well, but this would be going too far. Crimp’s text comprises a series of seventeen scenes that seemingly have no clear interrelation and most certainly do not form any kind of coherent story. In fact, to even call them scenes is a bit of a stretch, as most of them lack even much of an internal mini-story, nor do they employ conventional dramatic techniques.
The only obvious link between these cryptic episodes is the repeated invocation of the name Anne, (variously Anny, Anya etc.), always referring to an absent person or thing, who is described in each successive scene as though entirely different people, at times a wife, a dead child, a suicidal artist, an international terrorist, even a new car.
In some scenes she is referred to as though very real, her absence keenly felt or her artwork bitterly argued over, while in others she seems like an abstraction. Sometimes they talk about her as though she is an imagined character in a narrative which they are creating in front of us, throwing ideas back and forth and disagreeing on her attributes like writers pitching ideas in a staff room, trying to “break” a story.
These discursive, highly literate scenes are perhaps most illustrative of Attempts on Her Life as a whole. One hesitates to venture an interpretation as to the work’s core theme or meaning, as it is certainly a piece designed to give no clear answers but rather to place you in a contemplative, almost trance-like state. The artificial and fragmentary nature of our modern existence would seem to be at the heart of things, and violence, death and consumerism are recurring issues in the seventeen installments. In the same way that Crimp has drastically shattered the structure and conventions of a traditional play, perhaps he invites us to do the same to our perception of reality, and thereby question the meaningfulness of our increasingly artificial existence.
As the first of NIDA’s trio of graduation productions, Attempts on Her Life may not appeal to some but it is a very good showcase for the talents of its ensemble. Although the work obviously lacks clearly defined characters, what one wouldn’t necessarily know just from watching it is that Crimp’s script provides an even further breakdown of traditional play-writing, containing no specifications whatsoever as to how many actors are required, nor any explicit differentiation as to who should speak which lines. Thus the decision lies with a director to interpret how many people are in each scene, whether something is conversation or monologue, let alone any action or staging considerations.
In this task John Sheedy has done well with this work (greatly enhanced by Alice Lindstrom’s stark yet multifunctional set), creating many islands of captivating drama in what, for some, might seem to be a morass of over-intellectualised musings. His talented cast of seven are all excellent, although the particularly plum scenes seemed to go mostly to the intense Aidan Gillett and versatile Laura Brent. Gillett excels in one disturbing vignette describing the domestic bliss of a family of ultra right-wing survivalists bent on fighting the “fags, blacks, Jews, degenerates” etc., balancing venom and tenderness in a captivating performance. The distractingly beautiful Brent shows off her acting chops in a range of highly effective roles, including a couple of genuinely disconcerting exhibitionists that parody modelling and pornography with buckets of sass and exaggerated sex appeal, tempered by also displaying clearly disturbed and vulnerable sides of the speakers. This results in some ultimately quite creepy and memorable portrayals.
Attempts on Her Life is, frankly, not going to appeal to everyone. It has many moments of drama, humour and unpleasantness, but is on the whole a very highbrow, contemplative work which (if the audience on the night was any indication) may very well leave some people cold or, worse still, bored. However, if you’re in the mood for something challenging, a work that will defy your expectations of theatre and give you something to really think about rather than just passively enjoy, NIDA’s excellent production comes recommended.
Attempts On Her Life
by Martin Crimp
Venue: Parade Theatres, NIDA | 215 Anzac Parade, Kensington
Season: 5 - 13 October | Matinee Saturday 6 October
Performances: Evenings 7.30pm; Matinees 2pm
Prices: Adult $25 | Conc $15 | Groups 10+ $15
Bookings: 1300 795 012 or ticketek.com.au