Left - Alison Whyte and David James. Cover - Paul Capsis, Wendy Hughes and Blake Davis. Photos - Jeff Busby
Screwball mayhem and madcap are often used to describe Almodovar’s characters and plots. The intriguing thing about this play of a film, All About My Mother, is how those elements are all there but they don’t inform the proceedings to the extent that they do in the movie. This play manages to balance light and dark, theatricality and psychological verisimilitude in an extraordinary and touching way. The mood of opening night seemed to coalesce around the audience identifying with the role of mother, as Manuela (performed by Alison Whyte) finds herself, reluctantly or otherwise, meeting the needs of those around her; becoming a catalyst for their healing as she travels from Madrid to Barcelona to find her son’s father. There are some well-known treasures in the cast, Wendy Hughes as the legendary stage diva, Huma Rojo, Louise Siverson as another mother; all are convincing in their characters, even the large and very male Jolyon James bringing conviction to the doomed drag queen, Lola.
There were moments of not being able to see the woods for the undergrowth on opening night when many of the one-liners fell into nothingness because the audience was so engrossed in the drama. Alison Whyte gives a magnificent and astute performance; holding the space in a grip informed by the grief of a bereaved mother, so much so that you forget you are allowed to laugh at the jokes. Whyte keeps the audience tightly alongside her; she does this sort of thing so very well. The constant presence of Esteban (Blake Davis) on stage works brilliantly, seems completely natural, performed with a sensitivity that helps to gently tug everything together.
Something old-fashioned and traditionally stagey in Whyte’s delivery helps unify the dramatic backdrop of A Streetcar Named Desire (it also helps the hard of hearing get her every line!); the famous Tenessee Williams drama also being literally the backdrop, as the action of the play within the play happens upstage behind the layers of giant translucent screens. The set here is as much a character as the cast with stills and videos on the screens providing cinematic close-ups offering yet more layers of emotion and art. The set design is stunning; it achieves status as an installation in its own right. And somehow, with colours and light, amongst other devices, a mood of Spanishness is subtly, almost alchemically, created.
It helps to have seen the film but if you haven’t then the story becomes clearer with Paul Capsis’s drag queen Agrado filling in some of the details ‘in performance.’ He holds his own, doesn’t try to steal the show but brings dignity to what could have been a clichéd character. No-one in the play is a victim – or a ‘darling’– any more than anyone else, despite their unconventional life choices or personal flaws. The play (like the film) doesn’t take any sort of moralistic tone, it is aiming to and succeeding brilliantly in, giving us a story with enormous amounts of dramatic and artistic satisfaction in its layers and experiences. The story is about characters protecting each other without mawkishness or sentiment, loving and remaining loyal; it is fascinating human stuff and this show takes you on an absolute journey. The writing is great, the acting is great, it looks great; it all hangs together splendidly. A good number of the audience stood when the cast took their final bows; an entirely fitting response.
Melbourne Theatre Company presents
All About My Mother
by Samuel Adamson
based on the film by Pedro Almodóvar
Director Simon Phillips
Venue: MTC Theatre, Sumner
Dates: 14 August to 26 September 2010
Opening night: Thursday 19 August 2010 at 8:00pm
Tickets: $42.55 - $83.15 (Under 30s $30)
Bookings: MTC Box Office (03) 8688 0800 | mtc.com.au