Left - Margaret Mills, Natasha Herbert. Cover - Natasha Herbert, Anastasia Russell-Head. Photos - Paul Dunn.
Raimondo Cortese is a singular voice in Australian theatre. His plays seem to meander and appear disjointed but possess an internal logic that leaves a delicate impression of eloquence and subtlety. Characters converse in an atmosphere of comfortable intimacy which can be either loaded with the unsaid or founded on little connection whatsoever. There are layers upon layers in the relaxed conversation between the two sisters here, Zelda and Vanessa, played by Margaret Mills and Natasha Herbert, respectively. Sure-handed direction is by Heather Bolton.
The sisters are reunited after Vanessa’s return from a long, unexplained absence. If Zelda is angry with her younger sibling she doesn’t show it. Vanessa left her son, Sam with her sister, after Sam’s father, Mario, suicided. This all comes out much later, after bits and pieces of odd dialogue delivered so colloquially that the sheer weirdness of what’s just been said often doesn’t register straight away. Vanessa twice refers to Zelda as ‘a fucking nut’ although she herself has just described how she uses voodoo to put unwelcome males ‘on ice’ or is wondering whether a bar owner she knows may actually be employed by the feature wall of pinned butterflies in his bar. The sisters share a delight in the small oddities of existence, in their own and other people’s behaviour, like the Egyptian women who steals from her husband or the neighbourhood electrician who carves trees on nature strips into topiaries. Vanessa’s actions, though, are so staggeringly questionable that the irony of these tales reverberates; it is hard to know if she is truthful about her exploits. Her self-harming manifests in original and dangerous ways. In being lost to herself, however, she is defined, more so than her sister who covets her younger sister’s sense of identity; negative as that sense of self may be, Vanessa is still something in her nothingness. She could flutter away at any second. Zelda is desperate to keep her close even though what they once shared is gone for ever. You have to read between the lines, always; just when you think the two have cemented an authentic closeness, it is undercut. Zelda is reminiscing about the two of them as children pretending to be gypsies around a campfire and the mad stories Vanessa used to tell. “Are you laughing at me?” demands Vanessa, abruptly breaking the connection.
The Dream Life of Butterflies is a more accessible play we expect from Cortese, insofar as the characters do talk about themselves, their past (shared or otherwise) and every now and then someone says directly what they might genuinely mean (whether it 's received as such is another matter entirely). Dialogue itself becomes a character in this work; there is a minimum amount of business on set and few props. Conversation is punctuated by interludes of harpsichord music when confluence between the two women becomes threatening, overwhelming, or otherwise impossible. The oddly formal effect of the music adds an incongruous yet a natural, timely element to the proceedings, in part because along with the audience, the two women stop to listen.
Satisfying, odd and original theatre, as ever, from Cortese.
Melbourne Theatre Company
The Dream Life of Butterflies
by Raimondo Cortese
Director Heather Bolton
Venue: The MTC Theatre, Lawler Studio | 140, Southbank Boulevard, Southbank
Dates: 2 March - 2 April, 2011
Tickets: from $25
Bookings: MTC Box Office 03 8688 0800 | mtc.com.au