Memmie Le Blanc, also known as the feral child of Champagne, named after a region in France, is the story of a girl who was found and purchased by Madame Catherine Michel – who loved her as her own daughter and tried to bring her to acceptable societal conventions. I know it sounds quite oppressive and dark but after all it was the 1700's. The girl who was only 14 in this play survived outside of society for ten years and became obviously more aware of her animal self than anything else. So be prepared for some initial screams and screeches of the wild and great animal gestures.
As soon as this play began to unfold I could not help but feel that many of the modern stories that we see on stage and film are curious adaptations of the past. What instantly sprang to mind were 'Tarzan' and 'The Elephant Man'. Both characters considered freaks in the conventional sense. Once someone claimed them or loved them they became experiments of progression or some might say slaves to society.
In this adaptation directed by Tom Gutteridge and held at the Union House Theatre at The University of Melbourne, what instantly impressed was the environment that was built on the stage. The setting was a baroque playground, pale white evocative of the world of 1718. The furniture all French with trimmings on the chairs and on the bedroom suite and a white piano at one end. There were stenciled frames that barricaded this all white lavish living room from an outside world consisting of visual and textual delights in the form of a large tree, a fountain and very well pruned grass.
The first act was a background to the relationship between Catherine Michel (Madeleine Ryan) and Memmie Le Blanc-feral child (Dana McMillan). It was at times an uphill battle to stay focused because the space seemed to need more characters to fill the entire room. I could not help but meander off and day dream about the stage craft more than the actual performance. However when I felt that I was just about to lose hope in really connecting with the actors; careful direction, lighting and sounds lifted the performance and captured our attention and pulled us back. When the the actors all worked together to deliberately concentrate on the physicality and nature of Le Blanc, it became a physical circus that (Le Blanc) McMillan precisely executed. She leaped and jumped, thumped and ran around the tranquil living area and climbed on those stenciled windows trying to escape civilization – all the while a helpless Michel, desperately tried to present to her a new way of being and a sense of belonging.
"The state of nature. Whatever is left when all the conventions are stripped away", was what was written on the ad about the play but it was also what resonated with the entire audience. We began to really understand what this play actually meant with the help of the raw physicality; we began to sink our teeth into this big story.
Then came Act two; my desire for more characters to appear became a reality and now we had the pompous Mr. George Legendre (Dylan Morgan) who was there to instruct Michel on how to fully groom her girl and he brought with him an air of sinister plotting to what was an almost dank stage.
With him was also an outsider; he had trained an orangutan to make tea and to walk along side him and be as close to human as possible. The orangutan played by Grace Cummings needs to be the highlight of this review. I don't think I have ever seen such physicality as that which Cummings was able to achieve. I was amazed at her slow movements, her slick walk and her frightful jumps. I must go on as I believe this young first year arts student should be commended educating us in the art of absurd movement and of real animal characterization. Well done!
There seemed a sort of juxtaposition between the two superiors now, Michel and Morgan and the two outsiders, Le Blanc and the orangutan. As director Gutteridge pointed out, there was so much in the play that was, 'conveyed through unspoken signals between the characters as they would shift allegiances, seek comfort, fight for survival and crack on to one another'.
I have to say that the unspoken movements and intimate silences were what I enjoyed the most. The acting from a young University cast was not exceptional, at times losing our attention. There were moments when what was in the script should have made us shudder but the performance could not lift except when it was physical as opposed to the verbal.
Of course there was that orangutan that would squeal and transform from human to animal and that was what made it for me. To me it was a story about freaks, outsiders. It is two hours long and act two is what saved it for me.
Union House Theatre presents
Memmie le Blanc
by Hilary Bell
Directed by Tom Gutteridge
Venue: Guild Theatre, first floor, Union House, University of Melbourne
Dates/Times: 7.30pm, 9–10, 14–17 September, 2011
Matinee: 2pm Friday 16 September
Tickets: Full $20/Conc $15/Student Union Members $10