Left - Anna Lise Phillips. Cover - Anna Lise Phillips & Jack Finsterer
Stunningly staged in a small cube of a set, Don’t say the Words is a retelling of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon in a contemporary context. This is Tasmanian playwright Tom Holloway’s latest work and comes direct from its debut season at Griffin Theatre in Sydney.
A woman and a man are in a bathroom, complete with dingy toilet, bath and washing machine, the walls tiled in black. She’s telling a story about her husband coming home from the army. He’s been gone a long time and he’s tattooed her name on his fist. She greets him, offers him the head of the table at the family barbecue, but he’s angry. He hits her, half kills her, accuses her of being with another man. She reacts....
As the woman tells this story her lover makes corrections, suggestions; and the events change as she refines her narrative. Is her husband the brute she describes? Or is she looking for an excuse to kill him so she can be with her lover? We get the same story told from different points of view, with characters talking in the third person as though to emphasise that these are stories. Crimes are being contemplated. The stories may remain stories, or they might be enacted, made flesh (“In the beginning was the word…”). In the telling, there’s a chance to pre-empt guilt, to examine motivations, and to lay out the case for action.
The woman is played by Anna Lise Phillips with a wry knowingness interspersed with moments of numbing pain. As the husband, Jack Finsterer is full of suppressed, blind emotion. Brett Stiller, as the hapless lover, brings some much-needed levity, his uncertainty and vulnerability making his the most relatable character of the trio.
The woman of course is a version of Clytaemnestra, but she’s no longer the heartless wife who murders out of revenge. She’s more innocent here, more subtle – or is she? Her lover, in fact her husband’s cousin, and an amusing example of Aussie larrikinism as played by Stiller, wants what she wants. But he has his own reasons for resenting his “best mate”.
There’s an entertaining scene where the two friends share a few beers in front of the big screen at the pub, with a poisonous undercurrent to their charming drunken banter. This is the essence of Tom Holloway’s retelling: what is at the heart of relationships between men? Real love – or buried jealousy, dominance, rebellion? When one is strong (a king, in the original story) the other must be weak. Can real friendship exist on such a basis? Does power negate love?
And what about within marriage? The husband here, as in Agamemnon, has chosen war over his wife and, it is hinted, forced her into a painful sacrifice. Again, a power imbalance; and where one partner holds all the cards, is it any wonder that bitterness simmers and boils over? The question of this production (and no doubt for Aeschylus a couple of thousand years ago) is: can we hold onto our humanity in the face of victimisation? Even righteous anger should not necessarily be acted upon.
In a moment of endearing confusion the lover accuses himself of being a monster because he once fantasised about killing a sheep. He convinces himself that being able to imagine such a thing means that his basic nature is violent, so no there’s no point in trying to curb himself. The woman reminds him that imagining is not the same as doing. This play is about the space between the word and the act; and it’s up to the audience to work out where the characters ultimately find themselves.
The production is tightly directed by Matthew Lutton with scarcely a wasted moment. It’s a physical piece of theatre, visceral and energised, with a sense of danger. The clever set design by Adam Gardner adds to the claustrophobia and, combined with the lighting design by Paul Jackson, all flickering fluoros and dim melancholy, we get a setting that feels real, suburban even, and yet can be suddenly nightmarish. It’s the terror of the familiar, the stuff of great horror films. This effect is enhanced by the potent, and at times overwhelming, sound design by Kelly Ryall and the use of popular songs, which serve as banal barometers to the character’s inner states.
I can’t help but be reminded of The Boys, both in terms of this restrained Gothic style and in terms of the subject matter. Of course the screen version featured Anna Lise Phillips and the original stage production of the play came out of Griffin Theatre, so there is a connection. Both plays are about the dark underbelly of the masculine, but Don’t Say the Words has a central thread of feminine rage. The structure of the writing may be a little elliptical for some tastes, and seems guilty at times of obfuscation, but this is fresh and vibrant theatre and represents a rare convergence of talent.
The Tasmanian Theatre Company and Griffin Theatre Company proudly present
Don’t Say The Words
by Tom Holloway
Venue: Backspace Theatre, Theatre Royal
Dates: July 31 – August 28 2008
Times: Tuesdays to Thursdays at 8.15pm; Fridays at 6.15pm and 9.15pm; Saturdays at 2.15pm and 8.15pm
Bookings: Theatre Royal Box Office on (03) 6233 2299 or online at www.tastheatre.com