Face to Face | Sydney Theatre Company

Face to Face | Sydney Theatre CompanyLeft – Kerry Fox. Cover – Humphrey Bower, Anna Martin and Dylan Young. Photos – Brett Boardman.

Face to Face is simultaneously spectacular and underwhelming. On the surface, it is a devastating psychological drama, exploring madness and feeling and the self. Underneath, however, it seems strangely hollow, not repressed but empty, with character, plot, and motivation becoming a little confusing.

Face to Face is the story of Jenny (Kerry Fox), a psychiatrist with one particularly difficult patient. When this patient overdoses, Jenny goes to rescue her, and is nearly raped. This drives her to overdose herself, leading to a detailed exploration of her psyche and her descent into madness. This is a simple description of the plot: this show is a character study, and to ascribe too much in the way of plot to it would probably be foolish. Adapted from a film, there is not much of what we might think of as conventional theatricality about this show. This is not problematic: I love the idea of character study. What was sometimes hard to grasp was Jenny herself. Despite the whole show being about her, it was hard to know her. This is perhaps a feature, not a bug: who can really know anyone in their entirety? Nevertheless, sometimes it felt like Jenny's decisions did not make sense – not because she was mad (and was she mad? the show was really a long, desperate exploration of her sanity closing in on her), but because they were a little too surprising.

What I am trying to get at here is that Jenny's character, the lynchpin of the show, sometimes felt inconsistent, and occasionally dishonest. The second half of the play, where Jenny is in hospital after a suicide attempt (after one of the more spectacular set changes I have ever seen, even if the blinding white and the glass box are straight out of the Simon Stone playbook) made more sense than the first. Jenny's sexual assault acted as a catalyst, not as a reason for her to attempt suicide: the problem was, I didn't really get the sense that Jenny had had too many problems beforehand. Jenny's problems revolved around not feeling, and maybe the fact that they were invisible before one traumatic incident exploded them was intentional. However, they were repressed too well, too perfectly. I am extremely open to having my expectations subverted as an audience member, but Jenny's madness – chalked up not to her attempted rape, but to her gradual accumulation of desperation – was right out of left field.

This is quite a major problem to have with a show, as it is essentially the premise. However, it was my only problem with it. There is something quite spectacular about Face to Face. It is not merely the design, very effective in the massive space (indeed, a smaller, 'powder keg' space might have suited the piece better). It is not merely the acting, though Kerry Fox is incredible as Jenny, and her performance is a major part of the reason Face to Face works – and it does work, despite its flaws. And it is not merely Simon Stone's directing, though all the plaudits that have been heaped on him in the past are thoroughly deserved. There is an intensity about the show, a kind of magic that approaches brilliance at times. Face to Face is a good show, and it has the ingredients to be a great one. The second half is incredible. The first half is also excellent, but the two seem somehow mismatched. Face to Face is flawed by a basic inconsistency which, for me, emptied out a significant amount of the impact. It could have been – should have been – explosive, but it didn't quite make it.

Sydney Theatre Company presents
a film by Ingmar Bergman | adapted for the stage by Andrew Upton and Simon Stone

Director Simon Stone

Venue: Sydney Theatre
Dates: 7 Aug – 8 Sep, 2012
Tickets: $130 – $45
Bookings: www.sydneytheatre.com.au

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