Berlin in the aftermath of World War II. Allied soldiers patrol the streets and women scavenge in the debris, trying to bring some order to the chaos. In a café somewhere in the city, German standards are being sung in French.
Into this world, Sydney playwright Noelle Janaczewska transplants characters from The Merchant of Venice. It is ten years after the events of Shakespeare's play, and Portia – her husband, Bassanio, thought to be lost at sea – works among the 'rubble-women'. Anton, intoxicated with the possibilities of American capitalism, operates on the black-market. And, Jessekah, after ten years living in London, returns to look for her father, Shylock, who has disappeared during the war.
Jessekah soon discovers that her father's last possession – the building he owned – has been bought for a pittance by Mister and Missus, a couple who lived in the building when Jessekah was a child. Facilitating the sale was Portia, who utilised Nazi laws permitting the transfer of property from Jewish to non-Jewish Germans.
This production by Union House Theatre at the University of Melbourne does a commendable job of breathing life into what is a difficult play. The emphatic note on which the whole thing begins – the chorus of soldiers and rubble-women, arriving like a tide of migrants, each with a suitcase in hand – promises much, but it's a promise that's never quite delivered.
It's something of a treat these days to see so many actors on stage, and director Tom Gutteridge ensures they each have a part to play. And some of the most visually striking moments here are when the chorus arranges themselves into a tableau around the main players, the faded autumnal colours of the costumes and the muted haze of the lighting (Nicola Andrews and Ellen Strasser) only adding to the effect.
Isabella Vadiveloo is assured in her portrayal of Jessekah, and Shawn Tan and Sara Tabitha Catchpole make the most of their opportunities as Mister and Missus. Elyssia Koulouris captivates as the café singer, Yamina, though struggles when she's required to step outside the inner frame of the play to deliver an overly long monologue on the migrant experience. She should take heart in the fact it's a task that would challenge most actors.
Problems arise whenever the soldiers are playing upstage, their words dampened by the cavernous stage and the rummaging and shuffling of the rubble-women: when the soldiers are relaying so much of the tenor of the play, it's vital they can be heard. Similarly, the rubble-women who, at times, are not quite able to project their voices the necessary distance.
Yet, as hard as the actors work here, they are too often left stranded by the script. The conceit of introducing characters from The Merchant of Venice offers only the faintest of echoes, and it's difficult to discern the connections between Shakespeare's characters and Janaczewska's rendition of them. And there is, perhaps, too little else within the script for the actors to grab hold of.
In fact, a good deal of the emotional heft here comes from the music. Specially composed for this production, it's evocative and nicely integrated, and special mention should go to composer, Ashlee Clapp, and pianist, Lizzie Eng.
Not that Third Person doesn't toy with some big ideas – the nature of justice, the impact of displacement, and the way we attenuate our own guilt by shifting our language, so that we speak not in the first person, but in the third. There's also the baggage we each carry with us as we move out of the past and into the future. The problem is that – at eighty minutes – Janaczewska doesn't allow herself the time to give these ideas the substance they deserve.
While the redress that Jessekah enacts in the final scene fails to convince, her meditation on what she has done is especially forceful, and on opening night there was a very noticeable stillness in the audience as Vadiveloo delivered it. It's a defining moment – a moving piece of theatre – but not quite enough to draw the slender threads of this play together.
Union House Theatre presents
by Noëlle Janaczewska
Directed by Tom Gutteridge
Venue: Union Theatre, ground floor, Union House
Dates: 23–25 May, 29 May–1 June 2013 at 7:30pm
Matinee: Friday 31 May at 11am