On the basis of promotional material, it’s initially hard to grasp exactly what will happen with Irish two-hander I Heart Alice Heart I. Even in the production’s earliest scenes, it’s left something of a mystery. The set is a collage of memorabilia, photographs and old furniture. Two older women are nervously reciting rules regarding public speaking and performance in an obvious effort to calm themselves.
Gradually, their comments move onto the personal. They begin speaking for themselves and each other. Quirks and bugbears are listed. Admirations are aired. It’s still somewhat confounding but, eventually, all becomes clear. I Heart Alice Heart I is a portrait of a relationship. That’s it. A meticulously crafted, quietly visceral, stupidly beautiful illustration of a relationship between two women.
There isn’t a narrative, as such. There’s a minor explanation that the typically guarded couple spontaneously shared a kiss in a supermarket aisle and were asked by a local dramatist to share their story but it’s little more than a framing device. An excuse to examine two quiet lives and their eventual collision and combination in detail. Initially, it’s frustrating. One waits for a key conflict or message; for the work to begin proper.
Thankfully, it never does. Instead, it luxuriates in the key events and dramas of our two protagonists - Alice Kinsella and Alice Slattery. There are stories of sexual discovery, conflicts of faith, guilt, grief and politics. Crucially, there’s no melodrama. Simply stories told with crushingly human honesty. Throughout, director Amy Conroy (who also wrote and performs in the piece as Kinsella) consistently eschews theatricality for realism.
Not realism in the sense of grit, mind you – but vulnerability. There’s no bluster or vanity on stage. Both Conroy and her co-star Clare Barrett deliver performances that are achingly, awkwardly, painfully human. When tears win out, they’re wrung from characters desperately, defiantly reluctant to relinquish them. The only fidelity for what appears on stage appears to be that of truth. Not entertainment, catharsis or spectacle – but truth.
In that regard, Conroy’s script is practically a masterpiece. Her writing is so very real that it’s hard to accept that, as the play suggests, its protagonists do not actually exist. The details that define our protagonists relationship feel frayed and lived-in. Well-worn and loved. The speech of our two Alices’ feels too bumpy and calloused to have been wrought by a writer. It’s the literary equivalent of replicating a digital photograph by hand.
If that sounds heavy, your correspondent has done the work a partial disservice. I Heart Alice Heart I carries the weight of life lived but, conversely, it does so with a spring in its step suggestive of the romance that flows through its every moment. As touching and beautiful as the work is, it is also silly, funny, absurd and endearing. At one point, Alice Slattery actually punctuates her partner’s tales of sexual discovery with a plateful of cake.
The only potential blemish of the work is that, in its final moments, it just barely sells itself short. Throughout, the sheer fumbling poetry of our protagonists‘ relationship lodges an implicit argument for the legislative recognition of same-sex marriage (and of same-sex relationships within society at large). When the characters themselves make that argument explicit, the work almost becomes unnecessarily polemical.
It’s an understandable indulgence. It’s by no means unbelievable that Alice Kinsella and Alice Slattery would wish to make that point. However, it’s not necessary. If the personal truly is political, Kinsella and Slattery’s relationship is argument enough for their cause. It’s genuinely difficult to conceive of anyone, regardless of political persuasion, walking out of I Heart Alice Heart I andwanting anything other than public recognition for the beautiful relationship at its core.
Brisbane Powerhouse presents
I Heart Alice Heart I
Director Amy Conroy
Venue: Visy Theatre | Brisbane Powerhouse
Dates: 20 - 24 Feb 2013
Tickets: $42 – $35
Part of the 2013 World Theatre Festival