November 22, 2017

A grim fairytale for grown-ups

by Nicki Bloom
State Theatre Company
Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre
November 21. Tickets: $33- $61. Bookings 131 246 or online.
Duration 2 hours (including interval)
Until December 3.

“We’re weeds,” declares hotel tycoon Joseph Vale, “people rip us out roots and all /But back we come/tough as before.” Vale, Nicki Bloom’s new play for State Theatre Company, is a raucous, grimly funny portrait of star-crossed young lovers, their dysfunctional families, and the inevitable rise and fall of dynastic capitalism.

Set on New Year’s Eve in the spacious penthouse of a Vale hotel, the play opens with Joe, his wife Tina, and daughter Isla awaiting the arrival of her suitor Angus. It is a night of surprises and revelations, intensified when Diana, free-spirited mother of Angus, arrives to join the party.

Director Geordie Brookman leads us blithely into what seems like drawing room comedy of manners. Mark Thompson’s set (gorgeously lit by Geoff Cobham) is both sumptuous and breathtakingly vulgar – with Trumpian gold drapes, gold grand piano and a wall of self-congratulatory mirrors. The characters banter and condescend and there is an extended and witty excursion into the correct pronunciation of Moet.

But Bloom’s stylistic ambitions and theatrical daring take us ever further beyond stage naturalism. She wrote the play after being mentored by the late American playwright, Edward Albee, who encouraged her to take risks with her material. In fact it seems she is emboldened to filch tropes from Albee himself, especially the drunken psychodrama of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Elsewhere from Ibsen, there is the motif of the secret-shattering stranger. From the Elizabethans and Jacobeans come the separated twin subplots and Seneca and Sophocles supply the bloody evocations of revenge and atonement.

The rapidly morphing and mutating plotlines are a challenge for the actors. Elena Carapetis brings pathos to the guilt-ridden Tina, haunted by the memory of her dead child, Emma Jackson brings timely energy with her entry as Diana, and James Smith, while excellent as Angus, has to struggle in the final scene to keep up with the frantically changing circumstances of his character. Tilda Cobham-Hervey maintains a kind of ethereal detachment as the princess-heiress Isla, which intensifies the unexpected ending.

Mark Saturno is outstanding as Vale. So much hinges on this performance and he brings the necessary comic energy and psychological plausibility to sustain the escalating revelations of the plot. Vale cannot be merely a one-dimensional corporate villain, nor a chauvinist bully and self-made braggart – although he is all of these. Saturno’s Vale is the focus for all that ails this family, but he is not the sole cause.

Vale is a risky play because, in seeking to surprise and destabilise its audience, it tilts towards melodrama and guignol – and the pace of its final, hectic narrative unveiling leaves little chance for reflection. Nonetheless, State Theatre ends its season with an intriguing, entertaining, and disconcertingly memorable production.

“A grim fairytale for grown-ups”, The Australian, November 23, 2017. p.12.

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