Left – Amber McMahon. Photo – Brett Boardman
Of the audience gathered for tonight’s performance of Matthew Whittet’s Girl Asleep, the majority found it uproariously amusing (though, seemingly, only fleetingly affecting – if the flat response given to the production’s moments of pathos is an accurate reflection of such things). This reviewer, rightly or wrongly, was not counted among that majority’s number.
Everything about Whittet’s play speaks to an appreciation for the aesthetics of experimental pop artists (David Lynch, Wes Andersen, Michel Gondry) that lacks an understanding of the mechanics that allow such experimental artists to consistently connect their aesthetic abstractions with the sentiments of larger audiences.
The premise of the play is simple but functional. During an unwished-for party thrown by her parents to celebrate her fifteenth birthday, socially awkward Australian teenager Greta falls asleep in her room and is forced to navigate through a surreal dream land as she grapples with her own looming adulthood and the unavoidable disappearance of her childhood.
But, unfortunately, Whittet’s script doesn’t really seem to possess the depth or precision to make this surrealism work. Firstly, the character work in the Non-Dream components of the play amounts to a pile of broad cliches (rebellious sister, nerdy best friend, crazy parents) that are both too broad to invite genuine empathy and too conventional to really titillate.
Secondly, the dramatic functionality of each scene (both in the dream world and otherwise) seems to take a back-seat to visual tableaus. But, as with the character work, those visuals are not original enough to titillate without clear dramatic function. This focus on visual eccentricity over function, meanwhile, ensures that the play’s central ideas around Greta’s transformation are often ambiguous and occasionally contradictory.
(Greta reminisces pointedly over her younger self’s determination and independence – but literally leaves her younger self behind in the play’s climax to… Achieve self-determination and independence…?)
Rosemary Myers’ direction, meanwhile, lacks the dynamic touch to really sell the surrealism that Whittet’s play is striving to embody. From the outset, all performances are massively heightened and stylised. This decision, however, means that there is simply nowhere for the performers to go when the focus of the play shifts to the fantastical realms of Greta’s dreams – meaning those performances and scenes subsequently lack impact.
(The sole exception being Sheridan Harbridge – who, no matter what role she’s asked to deliver in the work, leaps into it with an almost savage delight. Few Australian performers in 2016 could match the sheer sublime intensity of Harbridge's swearing throughout Girl Asleep. Credit too, to be fair, to Matthew Whittet's knack for a creatively foul turn of phrase. A harder skill to master than most would suspect.)
It all just leads to a brightly coloured wash of good intentions with few laughs and even fewer moments of catharsis. Jonathan Oxlade's mechanically amorphous set design, it should be said, is a typically creative piece of work – but it doesn’t really lend much to the dramatic heft or comedic grace of the play as a whole. But, then, this reviewer was very much in the minority in his indifference. Everything in this review should probably be taken with a grain of salt.
That’s not a lazy concession, either. Or an attempt to denigrate the tastes of the masses in pursuit of credibility. In the end, you can’t argue with results. It's clear that people will love this play. People will laugh and embrace it. It’s entirely possible (probable, even) that you will too. But, for the reasons given above, it largely left this reviewer bored. Make of that what you will.
A Windmill Theatre production
by Matthew Whittet
Director Rosemary Myers
Venue: Upstairs Theatre | Belvoir St Theatre, 25 Belvoir St Surry Hills NSW
Dates: 2 – 24 December 2016