For precisely 90 minutes we watch the lives of Isabel and William revolve before us. Literally, in fact; the circular stage rotates on a wobbly axis of romantic restoration and recrimination.
The stage at the Cremorne Theatre groans under the weight of this treatment, suitably perhaps; audibly creaking as it inches around. Isabel is an art conservator; she dabs delicately at a “beautiful but cloudy” painting of a couple, hoping to restore the image but knowing the damage may be irreversible. The easel acts as a clock hand as it inches around exactly one and a half revolutions.
The ticking clock is silent but ever-present. It brings an apparent finality to the drama, a palpable urgency to the conversation. At times excruciatingly slow, but for the protagonists all-too-fast.
Joanna Murray-Smith’s two-hander, as rich in ideas of the heart and mind as any play from her prolific career, is beautifully established. William is a successful actor, sucked into the Hollywood machine and engaged to a younger starlet. But on the eve of the wedding he has agreed to see his ex-wife, scheduling 90 minutes to bring some sort of closure to their life together.
At first it seems they have nothing to discuss. He brutally dismisses her attempts at reconciliation, insisting he no longer loves her. They are quite unlikable creatures: pretentious in their own way, victims of a shattered relationship; he so willing to coldly and clinically dissect her flawed character, her accepting it unflinchingly in a hopelessly desperate attempt to win him back.
But of course there’s more going on under the surface. They didn’t fall out of love but were torn apart by a tragedy they can’t ever move on from. Like the brilliant Charlie Kaufman film, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, reminiscing on key moments in the relationship, recreating them even through part-flashbacks, brings to life a love that was real but dredges up the reasons it died. The question then becomes whether one overcomes the other.
There are some familiar themes at play here – the trials of parenthood, for example; the differences between the sexes – but Murray-Smith is able to offer new insight. The dialogue is potent – whether perceptive or pejorative; witty or wise; hurtful or heartbreaking.
It’s a challenge for these very adept stage actors to spit it all out – great monologues of thought, sometimes – while grounding their characters in reality.
Kim Gyngell has an easier time, perhaps, with the wry William. His comic experience draws out the laughs, yet he manages too to be deeply affecting as the facade is stripped away (bringing some of the audience, including my date, to tears). Rachel Gordon has to work harder with the more flighty Isabel. It’s a somewhat stagey performance in the beginning, losing a little grip on believability.
But the words, the ideas, shine. Transplanted from the Melbourne Theatre Company, Ninety is frankly a lesson for the local company on commissioning talented writers and heavily-workshopped material – clearly lacking from the 2009 season to date. Murray-Smith gives us a promising premise, and a terrific gimmick, but actually delivers a genuinely moving piece of theatre.
Queensland Theatre Company present
a Melbourne Theatre Company production
by Joanna Murray-Smith
Director: Simon Phillips
Venue: Cremorne Theatre, QPAC
Dates: 5 August – 5 September 2009
Tickets: $38 - $58 Under 30: $30
Bookings: QTIX 136 246 or www.qldtheatreco.com.au