March 04, 2022

Adelaide Festival – Twists in tales of surprise, suspense

Adapted by Simon Stephens
Based on the novel by Jose Saramago
Donmar Warehouse.
Queen’s Theatre, Adelaide.
Tickets: $20-$79. Bookings:
February 24. Duration : 70 mins.
Until March 20.
Also: Merrigong Theatre Company, Illawarra Town Hall, Wollongong.
May 11- 15.

Girls & Boys
By Dennis Kelly
State Theatre Company South Australia
Odeon Theatre, Norwood.
Tickets : $44- $80. Bookings:
March 1. Duration: 105 minutes.
Until March 12.

A motorist, in traffic as the lights change, comes to a sudden halt. He tells passers-by that everything has turned white. In an instant he has gone blind. In no time, across the city there is an inexplicable epidemic of infectious blindness. In Simon Stephens’ adaptation of the 1995 novel by Nobel winner Jose Saramago, the fictitious premise takes on dystopian parallels with Covid-19.

This excellent production, directed by Walter Meierjohan for the Donmar Warehouse was, in August 2020, the first stage performance in the UK to open since the pandemic closures in February. The organising principle of Lizzie Clachan’s minimal design is social distancing. The audience sit in pairs of chairs, facing in opposite directions.

Jessica Hung Han Yun’s lighting – vibrant neon tubes in rectangular patterns above us shift from red to blue, green to white. At one point the neon lowers down almost touching us. We are separate but connected, each wearing a set of headphones, strangely immobilised by the absence of a visible performer.

The narrative , peerlessly delivered by Juliet Stephenson, and brilliantly captured in 360 degree proximity by sound designers, Ben and Max Ringham, is intimate, sinister, unnerving and immediate. It is a tale of rapidly unravelling terror as the newly blinded – including a doctor, his patients, and his wife, who by some fluke still has full sight – are rounded up, interned and left like pariahs with minimal food and support.

It is the wife who takes over the telling and the acoustic illusion of Stephenson’s vocal range (from whisper to scream) circles around us as if there is someone right behind us.

Interestingly, we are spared visual darkness – a deprivation that would have made the escalating violence and aural chaos doubly grim. With Stephens’ deftly cadenced text and Juliet Stephenson’s flawlessly crisp expression, Blindness takes us to the edge of the pit. Perhaps it is a kindness in these Covid times that it doesn’t leave us there.

By contrast, another recent British work, Dennis Kelly’s 2018 monologue Girls & Boys, lulls us into the domestic and working life of its unnamed central character and leads us slowly, step by inevitable step, in an unforeseen direction.

It begins as a recognisable story of a life of chance and lucky breaks. The young woman, from a non-descript family, has a brash charm and a sharp mind. As she describes her early party life as a single, then meeting her future husband in an airport queue in Naples, the dark comedy and sensual mischief suggests a working-class version of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag. Kelly’s text is raucous and carefree. The domestic family life with two young children, Leanne and Danny (unlike their parents they do have names) is depicted with the familiarity of a sitcom. The woman’s unexpected career rise, after she talks her way into a job with a documentary film production company, has a welcome plausibility to it.

Following the carefully paced shifts and twists of Kelly’s unfurling text, director Mitchell Butel capably guides this production to its profoundly affecting conclusion. Designer Ailsa Paterson’s set suggests the comfortable affluence of a two-income family. The domestic toys, ornaments, books and so on, are almost a shrine of security, warmly lit by Nigel Levings. Alan John’s musical interludes between scenes are melodic and lyrically disarming.

To disclose the plot-line any further not only short-circuits Kelly’s virtuosic dramatic intent, it pre-empts the extraordinary impact of Justine Clarke’s galvanising portrayal of a spirited, intelligent woman with agency in the world – until that changes. Clarke is outstanding and utterly credible. The last thirty minutes of this production are an assault on both heart and mind. Girls & Boys is emotionally cogent and, in its message, devastatingly lucid.

Murray Bramwell

Published in edited form as “Twists in tales of surprise, suspense”, The Australian. March 4, 2022, p.11.

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