November 07, 2012

Stimulating without the wink-wink factor

November 7, 2012

In the Next Room (or the vibrator play)
by Sarah Ruhl
State Theatre Company
Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre

November 7. Tickets $ 25 – $ 59
Bookings : BASS 131 246
Until November 24.

In the opening scene of In the Next Room, Sarah Ruhl’s Pulitzer-nominated play from 2009, the intrepid medical scientist, Dr Givings,  makes his confident diagnosis : “Mr Daldry, your wife is suffering from hysteria. It is a very clear case. I recommend therapeutic electrical massage – weekly – possibly daily, we shall see – sessions. We need to relieve the pressure of her nerves.”

Enter the vibrator. And one of the most curious social and medical phenomena of the late 19th century, the use by doctors of electrically charged vibrators to assist women to orgasm. In the age of Edison and the electrification of modern life – including domestic gadgets for women – the invention of the vibrator preceded both the iron and the vacuum cleaner.

It was the historian Rachel Maines who identified this camouflaged technology and Sarah Ruhl’s witty, gently satiric play artfully explores, not only the social construction of female  sexuality, but what she calls “the whole notion of compartmentalization, of what goes on ‘in the next room’, whether literally the next room, or another body, another mind, another era, or another marriage. “

For her final production as Associate Director for State Theatre, Catherine Fitzgerald has assembled a fine cast and delivered a strong version of this intriguing, entertaining (if, perhaps, overlong)  text. Ailsa Paterson’s design is deliberately busy – the heavy furnishings, the dominating art nouveau wallpaper and the complicating bundling of trusses and bustles of the women’s costumes all suggesting a world of complicating surfaces, while the  lack of separation and privacy  between the drawing room and the “next” is suitably ambivalent and, as one character says – porous. The Gyro Gearloose vibrator technology is amusingly highlighted by David Gadsden’s zany lighting and Catherine Oates’s original music adds melodic warmth.

The performances are first rate. The lightness of gesture and comic restraint from Lizzy Falkland (as Sabrina Daldry) and Amber McMahon (as Catherine Givings, the doctor’s young, frustrated wife), perfectly captures the playwright’s celebratory candour and thematic ambition. Any nudge-nudge, wink-wink or exaggerated slapstick and this play would founder in its own burlesque. Renato Musolino gives dimension to the earnest doctor (bringing emotional impact to the final scene), Cameron Goodall is deftly flamboyant as the mannered artist, Leo Irving, and Pamela Jikiemi (Elizabeth), Katherine Fyffe (Annie) and Brendan Rock (Daldry) all contribute strongly.

This production is an ensemble success and shows, as in Top Girls earlier in the year, Catherine Fitzgerald’s impressive capacity to draw exuberant performances – and make us think and smile at the same time.

Murray Bramwell

“Stimulating without the wink-wink factor” The Australian, November 9, 2012, p.17.

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