Penned by French-Senegalese playwright Marie Ndiaye, Hilda is an intense, progressively creepy and blackly humourous tale of obsession and despair that will, if nothing else, put you off ever contemplating a job as someone’s domestic help!
The story begins with the quiet, blue-collar Franck arriving at the household of the affluent Mrs. Lemarchand, an eccentric society lady of a certain age who has brought him there under false pretenses. She isn’t really offering him work, but rather is interested in hiring his wife Hilda to work for her as a domestic. How exactly she knows about Hilda is unclear, but she certainly seems to have an interest in her that is keen to say the least…
As time lapses between several scenes, an increasingly suspicious, alienated and eventually desperate Franck is becoming aware that Mrs. Lemarchand is not only fixated on his wife, but quite likely is more than a little bit crazy. An endless stream of chattering, browbeating gentility, she has somehow managed to twist and manipulate Hilda into becoming a virtual – and then literal – captive, cutting her off from her progressively distraught and powerless husband and their unseen children.
Why is Mrs. Lemarchand doing this? And why does she keep flirting with Franck while driving him to desperation by keeping his wife sequestered away? Is she some kind of sadist? Is she really that desperate for some kind of twisted best friend in a servant? Is this a game, the goal being to utterly break another woman’s will? Is she really doing all this because of Hilda, or is it for Franck? Is she merely lonely? Or completely insane?
These questions are not easily answered, and that is part of the appeal of this intriguing piece. One of the structural conceits is that Hilda, the object of this conflict, is never seen onstage. She is an implied personality rapidly reduced to an object, something to be fought over in this psychological tug of war. In retrospect, this taut drama seems a bit like a Stephen King thriller in the Misery vein, except that instead of seeing it from the perspective of the captive herself we are party to this unsettling series of encounters between Mrs. Lemarchand and Franck, witnessing the devastating effect this has on him as he is increasingly refused access to his wife.
It is also a work of strong contrasts, being essentially a two-hander between one brooding character who says barely anything and a hyperactive one who never shuts up. These are strong, challenging roles which require committed actors, and fortunately have found them in this production, under the capable direction of Jonathan Wald.
A bizarre cocktail of a Noirish femme fatale, a French coquette, Miss Havisham, Blanche DuBois and Glenn Close at her bunny-boiler best, Mrs. Lemarchand is an intense character to say the least. Susie Lindeman’s performance in the role is appropriately captivating, managing to inhabit this difficult character who must be funny, creepy, sexy, and repellent, swanning around the stage, posing and showing off, all the while talking fifteen to the dozen. Lindeman does an excellent job, not only delivering something like ninety-five percent of the play’s lines, but managing to inject a very distinct personality into a character that could be quite tiresome in the wrong hands. Even so, her performance is decidedly arch, and while the character certainly requires this some might find that it verges inappropriately into the realm of camp. I did not.
By stark comparison the laconic Franck is portrayed with tremendous economy by Cameron Knight, who delivers his tiny scraps of dialogue in a flat, ocker tone that could not be more different to the whirlwind of mannered madness put forward by Lindeman. With so few lines to work with, Knight does a masterful job of playing his role with great subtlety, a host of thoughts and emotions passing visibly across his deceptively blank face. As the stakes are raised and Franck heads towards a total breakdown, Knight makes some excellent acting choices in ratcheting up the sense of desperation and fuming frustration without ever straying over the top. When towards the end he is reduced to little more than a hopeless husk, you believe it.
All in all, the play is a very stimulating character study and an interesting example of a text in which a significant portion of the story related to us is deliberately placed offstage. However, while I described it as a “taut” thriller, Hilda isn’t quite as taut as it could be. Although engrossing, it does seem overlong by as much as a third and would have been just as fascinating but better maintained its dramatic tension if it had been kept to just an hour, preventing the possibility of beginning to drag in places. Part of the problem is that since the ending, such as it is, seems like a relatively foregone conclusion almost from the outset, prolonging the inevitable is somewhat to the detriment of the play overall. By the same token, the inclusion of Hilda’s sister Corrine (Clare Blumer) in one scene seems like an extraneous intrusion into an otherwise very focused two-hander, and one that the narrative could easily have done without.
Although perhaps a bit talky for some, Hilda is a well-executed and very effective psychodrama that is definitely worth a look if the material appeals to you.
The Seymour Centre, Persophia Productions & Hot Seat Theatre present
by Marie NDiaye
Venue: Seymour Centre | Cnr Cleveland st & City Rd, Chippendale
Dates: 15 September – 11 October
Times: Tuesday 6.30pm; Wednesday 10.30am; Wednesday- Saturday 8.00pm
Tickets: $34 Adult; $25 Concession; Tight Arse Tuesdays $22; School Groups $20
Bookings: 02 9351 7940 or www.seymourcentre.com.au