Melancholia | Malthouse TheatreLeft – Leanna Walsman and Eryn Jean Norvill. Cover – Eryn Jean Norville. Photos – Pia Johnson

It is a game ambition to adapt Lars Von Trier for stage. The Danish film maker, co-creator of the Dogma film movement, is known for a creative output which is relentlessly confrontational. While Melancholia is perhaps one of his gentler works, its story of a woman grappling with psychological malaise in the face of literal apocalypse drew polarised reactions as a film, and is likely to do so in play form also.

It starts with Justine (Eryn Jean Norvill, in the role which netted Kirsten Dunst a Best Actress award at Cannes) about to get married in a lavish ceremony, which descends into chaos, largely through Justine’s own erratic behaviour as, disaffected by proceedings, she wrecks her own wedding. In the second half, the world ends, literally, courtesy of a rogue planet on collision course with Earth. It is a strange construction, like two separate genre pieces wedded in one story, and one that constantly sets itself at odds with expectations, whether in Justine’s persistent refusal to follow the expected social script for whatever situation she is in, or in the placid, at times even eager, wait for the end of the world that comprises the second act.

The original film is heavy, over-long and a teensy bit pretentious, but saves itself with knockout performances, iconic visuals and its insightful exploration of psychology. This stage adaptation by Declan Greene has these same flaws but doesn’t quite achieve the saving graces that made the film work despite them.

Performance wise, yes. Norvill gives a beautiful and nuanced portrayal of Justine, Leanna Walsmann provides an engaging counterpoint as her sister and Maude Davey as their mother is tremendous. The hectic scenes of wedding hell from the film are hard to recreate with a small cast on a vast open stage, but Davey achieves it all on her own, in a powerhouse performance. Strangely, the play makes the decision to bring back a tamed version of her in the second half, who then disappears without comment. Possibly this is meant to be a new character but if so it is unclear and, either way, Davey is underused.

The actors, while working hard, seem a little lost in a space that feels empty and monolithic. The stagecraft, it has to be said, is extremely impressive, featuring a sliding stage that cleverly converts interior to exterior and evocative use of dramatic confetti showers – representing either wedding roses or apocalypse ash as the mood suits. Despite some truly stunning visuals, the play is still hampered by trying to recreate visual elements of the film by talking about them. Greene’s poetic language does do this very effectively at some times, cunningly using the device of having Justine describing things around her as a technique to ground herself during anxiety, but at other times having characters describe iconic images from the film simply highlights what the play is not able to do.

Melancholia doesn’t have a lot of actual story to it, it is more an experiment in dissonant ambience, and the gaps are more apparent on stage. I find myself being unaffected by it all, so that when the apocalypse comes with blasts of white noise and actors staring meaningfully over the audience’s heads, I feel disconnected and kind of keen for the killer planet to just hit and wrap things up.

Maybe this is an inevitable reaction to a play whose main character is disconnected from the emotional circumstances she is in. Maybe it would work better if it didn’t invite comparison to the film. Maybe it wouldn’t be doing Von Trier justice if it didn’t leave half the audience in awe and the other half scratching their heads. Certainly I see other audience coming out who look absolutely blown away by it. There is a lot to be blown away by, especially if you enjoy the technical aspects of theatre. But, rather like Justine unable to engage with her own wedding, I don’t react emotionally in the way the play is asking me to, able to note that it’s impressively done without the feelings you expect to go with that.

Malthouse Theatre presents
by Declan Greene

Director Matthew Lutton

Venue: Malthouse Theatre | 113 Sturt Street, Southbank VIC
Dates: 13 July – 12 August 2018



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