Oriel | Ghost EnsemblePhoto – Luke Lennox

It’s a good thing that Merrilee Moss’ fascinating play, Oriel is on the VCE play list – this work about Oriel Gray addresses the issue of yet another woman artist we should all know of and does something about this lack of awareness. Oriel Gray was a well-known playwright in her own time: in 1955 she shared the Playwright’s Advisory Board’s Award for Best Australian Play (for The Torrents) with Ray Lawler (for Summer of the Seventeenth Doll). Guess which play went into production and on to become a revered icon of the Australian stage, and which one was forgotten?

Ghost Ensemble brings this complex work to the Carlton Courthouse with direction by Kim Durban. Sarah Hamilton plays Oriel, who enjoys an across-the-decades dialogue with contemporary playwright Moss (Hannah Monson). Oriel opens on the night of the awards ceremony and shifts about in time, showing the lives of bohemian characters of Sydney's post war era associated with the Communist Party and the New Theatre interspersed with a modern story of a woman writer's creative struggles.

The production takes a while to warm up; to begin with the business on stage is confusing as to who’s who. Two more cast members would help keep the characters clearly defined. There are many scenes and shifts of time; I had trouble following the story to begin with, something not helped by the famously muffled acoustics of the Courthouse which work against the hard of hearing. Some confusion is also created by speeded-up direction; on opening night the actors rushed full-tilt towards the next cue or anchor. This terrifically interesting play is slightly spoilt for me by smirking performances from the two female leads, near-Cowardesque styles of delivery in a work which demands to operate on a more varied level. Even in the moments where her cat dies or she’s just given birth or where Oriel breaks up with her husband or reconciles with her sister (whose ex-partner she’s now living with), scenes which should carry considerable emotional intensity, there’s a level smugness to Hamilton’s affect. Hamilton does influence the pace at times to slow things down, but on the whole solemn moments between characters are too rushed, the emotional tone too even and lacking in depth; the cast slides across the surface of feeling. Once the actors settle into their stride things will improve and the whole thing will be easier to follow.

The cast warms up noticeably about half way through after the scene where the four 1950s’ characters sang old leftie drinking songs. Introductions from Moss re Oriel’s scenes and some tableaux to start new scenes help to orient the audience and the device of the occasional break-out in the rapport between Oriel and Moss is delightful; these are their best moments, especially where they comment on social or personal issues affecting them both respectively or give each other advice. Marvellous intelligent fun had here.

Alyson Gale as Helen/Grace gives us the widest emotional gear changes. Nicholas Rijs does a fine job as John Hepworth and Charlie Mycroft plays Oriel’s husband, John Gray perfectly well.

Although the play is about a woman who’s an activist, writer and a mother, the effect on her life of being practically a sole parent is glossed over. All in all Oriel is an important, well-resolved and often comical play which deserves to be widely seen. A mainstage production of this fine script would cheer us all up; let's hope we see this one day soon.

Ghost Ensemble presents
by Merrilee Moss

Directed by Kim Durban

Venue: La Mama Courthouse | 205 Faraday Street Carlton VIC
Dates: 7 – 18 September 2016
Tickets: $25 – $15
Bookings: www.lamama.com.au | 9347 6142

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