The development of new works is an important consideration in contemporary Australian theatre. New voices, new viewpoints and new stories can be hard-pressed to find room to be heard. It is, then, an accomplishment in itself that Black Swan State Theatre Company has developed and continues to invest in the Black Swan Emerging Writer’s Group, and even more so that one of its alumni, playwright Nathaniel Moncrieff, has been given the opportunity to shape a script for the Studio Underground stage.
A Perfect Specimen is the State Theatre Company’s latest offering. Inspired by a true story, the play follows the ruthless 19th Century businessman, Theodore Lent, as he tours his freak show across Russia. Topping the bill is his star attraction and wife Julia Pastrana, a gentle soul whose unfortunate genetic conditions have led her to be billed as the ‘ape-woman’. When Julia announces she is pregnant and her desire to escape the jeers of the entertainment industry, Theodore is unmoved, instead dreaming of the riches to be generated by a second ‘nondescript’. However, the death of both mother and child tests the limits of his morality, while he pursues further fame and fortune.
Aesthetically, A Perfect Specimen is a masterpiece. The set, ably designed by Frances Danckert, was every bit as lavish as we’ve come to expect at the State Theatre Centre, while remaining effective practically, symbolically and theatrically. The revolving stage and hanging drapes created a feel of impermanence, while the beaded back curtain provided multiple opportunities for Joe Lui’s beautiful lighting effects. Lynn Ferguson’s costumes provided needed context, and Brett Smith’s sound designs contributed to the haunting mood of the piece.
Stuart Halusz’s direction was subtle and understated – one didn’t get the feeling that the play was overreaching, or trying to do too much. The biggest directorial challenge of the piece was how to treat the physical character of Julia Pastrana. In Halusz’s case, he opted to have the outward appearance of the characters reflect their inner sensibilities, seeing him place Theodore Lent in grotesque white make-up while providing a purity to Julia’s appearance. This was a bold choice, and I’m not convinced it entirely worked, but it did cause us to reflect on our own desires for a freak show – our feeling of disappointment and confusion after an anti-climactic reveal was one of the major takeaways of this performance.
Each member of the small cast of five contributed strongly to the performance. Igor Sas and Greg McNeill, in relatively small parts as Dr Gregory Alyokhin and Cornell Wurlitzer respectively, created complete characters with specific purpose and mannerisms, no small feat given the limited material with which they had to work. Rebecca Davis committed fully to her role as Theodore’s tragic acrobat mistress Marian Trumbull, though her Russian accent faltered at points in her second, less consequential role as Julia’s midwife.
The majority of the production, however, belonged to Daff and Hewitt. Ultimately, the contrast between the characters drove the plot and the audience reaction, and both actors threw themselves at the work with energy and aplomb. Although physically inappropriate for the role (Pastrana was an Indigenous Mexican woman), Daff’s portrayal was, for the most part, sweet and gentle but found good range in the climactic arguments between Pastrana and Lent. Her accent was polished, although more needed to be done in the writing to acknowledge the character’s cultural heritage. Hewitt, often revered for his comedy work, brought a brooding malice and greed to Lent that made him deeply unlikable, his unfaltering pursuit of money and greed bringing him to commit the worst of betrayals.
And that, for me, was the struggle of this performance. The contrast between the two leads – Pastrana as beautiful and forgiving, Lent as permanently cruel and self-oriented – meant that both characters emerged as somewhat two-dimensional. To some extent, presenting Pastrana as beautiful robbed the character of her struggle. Similarly, from the first scene onwards, it was clear that Lent would be serving his own interests, and without a sense that he could be anything different I was unsurprised at each reprehensible act he committed. Lent’s remorse, or at least desperation, was hinted at in the denouement of the play (mostly exposition of the years after Lent’s death by two minor characters), and I felt like seeing this journey on stage would have been more impacting. It is hard to know whether the fault lies in the writing, directing, acting, or a combination of the three, and while it didn’t leave me wanting more, it did leave me wanting something different.
Nonetheless, A Perfect Specimen was an engaging production, developed from an intriguing piece of history. The images throughout were clever and well-crafted, and, like Moncrieff, I wanted to know more about these people and their journeys. The risk you take with new theatre is that it is hard to know exactly where it will end up. In A Perfect Specimen’s case, it is good theatre, well presented, that unfortunately fell just short of the sublime. The effort alone is worth applauding, but there’s plenty else to clap about too.
A Black Swan Lab production
A Perfect Specimen
by Nathaniel Moncrieff
Directed by Stuart Halusz
Venue: Studio Underground, State Theatre Centre of WA
Dates: 30 Jun – 17 Jul 2016