Left & Cover - William Zappa. Photos - Lorna Sim
Every now and then a play comes along that leaves you feeling like you’ve just witnessed something important, but you’re not sure what. Winter’s Discontent is one of them. It is coherent, intelligent, demanding of its audience and at times funny, but I still feel like I missed something. Like there was something substantial, important, that the writer was trying to communicate, and I’m a bit of a goose for missing it.
Written and performed by William Zappa, Winter’s Discontent is the story of an actor, Robert Winter, preparing to take the stage for a performance, an occupational procedure that should be de rigueur, especially for an actor of Winter’s vintage. On this occasion, though, he happens to be going through something of a personal crisis, and is questioning his life, his relationships and most of all his choice of profession. Amongst his own questions are the voices of those close to him, echoing in his head, threatening his sanity.
It is convenient, under such circumstances, if the character you’re playing happens to be a cynical, overbearing, postmodern, eighteenth-century Frenchman. While responding to the voices in your head, you can also take time out to converse with your character, which Winter does enthusiastically.
Winter’s Discontent trots out theatre’s peremptory mantra that ‘the show must go on’, but it takes on another dimension in this context, ultimately becoming the one thing that draws Winter forward, and possibly keeping him sane.
There is a long tradition of plays about playmaking. They can be mostly divided into the categories of the ‘play within a play’ and the ‘backstage drama’, which is where Winter’s Discontent clearly fits. While a few magnificent works have been produced in both of these categories - most notably Michael Frayn’s classic Noises Off - there are risks involved, particularly that it may seem like too much navel gazing on the part of theatre enthusiasts, much of which will be of little interest to the average punter; or, worse, that the setting will add nothing to the story apart from some superficial irony. I felt that Winter’s Discontent charts dangerous waters in this regard, but that it did so with good reason, and to a valuable effect. The use of the actor’s character was particularly engaging, and could not have occurred in another context, so as a writer, Zappa has managed to tell a story worth telling, and enhance it by setting it in a theatre dressing room. Still, I can’t help but cringe a little when I encounter a play about playmaking. It is ingrained.
As a performer, Zappa is more impressive. His energy makes the journey compelling, and he sustains a monologue with impeccable pace, inflection and not the slightest hint of becoming a talking head, which is the principal danger in solo performance. What Zappa does not manage - and I’m not sure whether this is a fault of script or performance - is to elicit the kind of pathos this character seems to crave. Whether we should pity, empathise or loathe him is unclear, and while I was engaged in the story, I really didn’t feel connected to this character, which makes the play a little awkward.
Although this is essentially a solo piece Zappa is supported by Canberra’s own Andrea Close, who makes an appearance on stage in the beginning and provides the imagined voices from offstage of Winter’s stage managers and wife, and does so admirably.
Whatever I didn't like, Winter’s Discontent is still an excellent production, and what’s great about it is that it demands something of its audience, which is not a common thing these days. Unfortunately, I don’t think it offers enough in return, and audiences should not expect to be entertained, but challenged by this rather intense theatrical experience.
The Street presents
Written and performed by William Zappa
Venue: Street 2, The Street Theatre, Childers St Canberra
Dates: Friday June 18 – Saturday July 3 @ 7.30pm, Tuesday 22 & 29 June and Friday 25 June & 2 July @ 6pm
Tickets: $29 / $25 / $19
Bookings: 6247 1223 or www.thestreet.org.au