The Melbourne Theatre Company’s production of Ninety, directed by Simon Phillips, is full of the brutal truths that can be spoken only between those who have once been lovers and have nothing more to lose. Isabel (Melinda Butel) craves stability and longevity. An art restorer, she makes a living from fixing and holding on to those things that are falling apart but her own life has also reached a stage where cracks are starting to show, colours are fading, and binds are weakening. Meanwhile, William (Kim Gyngell) has found it big in Hollywood and revels in the shiny, new, excitement of it all, including Vera, his exotic, younger wife-to-be. In the ninety minutes Isabel is given with William, layers are peeled away and with them come what could be Isabel’s most important work of restoration.
Isabel first kissed William when she asked him over to her place. She was a schoolgirl and he was her drama teacher. William again stands in Isabel’s apartment, this time with a broken marriage and a new engagement under his belt. The next ninety minutes are a race against time, to re-familiarise, to be honest, to remember and for Isabel to convince William that sometimes the old is better than the new.
Ninety achieves a balance between the quick wittedness and sharp tongues of its characters and the gradual uncovering and re-discovering of memories, expertly cued by Nick Schlieper’s lighting. These slower moments allow the emotional to enter Joanna Murray-Smith’s script but it is when the two combine with explosive force that the one thing tying these two together forever is revealed.
Butel and Gyngell’s delivery of the dialogue is skilful, and while the frequency and placement of unfinished sentences in this production is at times grating, each character’s lines have the wonderful quality of opposing, and then very quickly bleeding into those of the other. Murray-Smith has plied the role of William with some wonderfully humorous lines and Gyngell is well suited to his frustrating mix of arrogance and realism. However Gyngell’s delivery is particularly fast and on occasion in the earlier moments of the play, the nuances and meaning of some of his lines are not as clear as they might be.
When placed along side William, the character of Isabel is somewhat plain, but her role is crucial to revealing the original condition of her and William’s marriage. William protests that he does not love Isabel, nor even like her and the keys lying abandoned on the living room floor are a constant reminder that William’s driver and future await him. It is thanks to Butel’s precise performance of Isabel that William and the audience are given the opportunity to recognise he and Isabel’s marriage not as something that fell apart and is therefore useless, but as something that can be and is worth preserving.
Andrew Bellchambers’ rotating set is one of the most pleasing elements of this production. Like the characters with which the audience are first presented, the living room of Isabel’s modern apartment has clean lines and a suitable amount of comfort. Isabel’s easel and the artwork, which she has patiently or perhaps obsessively been restoring, stand to the side, but in a room without walls this project will inevitably influence the way she lives on a daily basis.
The Arts Centre’s Fairfax Studio has been made even more intimate than usual by seating the audience around the entire circumference of the stage. It is to stage manager Alyson Brown’s credit that the cast members so rarely have their backs to the audience. When this occurs there is not so much a sense of alienation amongst the audience but a surprisingly voyeuristic pleasure, a curiosity to know what those on the other side can see.
With the painstakingly slow rotation of the set, there is the sense that Isabel and William are traversing old ground but as William says, it’s all about layers. He is referring to this season’s latest fashion trend, but by the time he removes his scarf and coat and Isabel’s ninety minutes is up, he will have revealed his greatest fear. It remains to be seen whether Isabel will win back her man, but the once empty frames suspended above them are now filled with memories, of Isabel and William and their life together, captured and preserved for all to see.
Melbourne Theatre Company presents
by Joanna Murray-Smith
Venue: the Arts Centre Playhouse
Season: 22 August - 4 October 2008
Times: Mondays & Tuesdays 6.30pm, Wednesdays 1pm & 8pm, Thursdays & Fridays 8pm, Saturdays 4pm & 8.30pm (times may vary during previews)
Prices: $16 - $75.30
Bookings: Ticketmaster 1300 723 038 or online at www.mtc.com.au