‘The Actress’ was theatrical.
Playwright Peter Quilter has built a career by his rare talent to write to a particular character demographic, namely women – middle-aged and above.
Quilter’s penchant for this underrepresented character type and the sincerity of the voices he gives them are evident in all his most famous works. The most notable of these is arguably ‘End of the Rainbow’, the story of the last year of the life of Judy Garland. A film version of ‘End of the Rainbow’ is soon to be released, in fact, under the title ‘Judy’.
The lack of roles in both theatre and film for actresses of this age also happens to be a plot point of ‘The Actress’. It’s clearly an issue that Quilter feels strongly about and has worked to rectify by writing these roles himself. Enter Helen Maden, the director of the Javeenbah production, who seems to feel the same way.
And thus emerges the central figure of ‘The Actress’: Lydia Martin, an aging star of the stage who, when the play opens, is preparing for her final performance. She is playing the role of Ranevskaya in Chekov’s ‘The Cherry Orchard’ for the last time and plans to fly to Switzerland to begin her retirement in a matter of days. Like Ranevskaya, however, Lydia is not fully prepared to surrender to the past to which she longs to return. Necessity has unfortunately made it so.
The role of Lydia in Javeenbah’s production is played with passion and sincerity by Susan Carey. She presents Lydia as larger than life, but this choice makes sense. A lifetime in the theatre has crafted this lived-in theatricality. It is when Lydia is alone, however, that the dichotomy of Carey’s performance really shines. For all her extremity, she is, underneath, very real.
Over the course of the play, an assortment of Lydia’s colleagues, friends, and enemies join her. Among these is Lydia’s ex-husband, played with comic precision by Rob Horton. Horton is, as always, a delight. As Paul, he is both the snake and the charmer. The performance is captivating, and the chemistry shared by Horton and Carey drives their scenes to new heights. This production is at its best when the two of them are front and centre.
Other treats of the casting are Joel Beskin as Lydia’s elderly fiancé, and Amy Anderson as the manager of the theatre. Beskin has very little to do over the course of the entire show, but he makes every moment count with his hilarious, doddery portrayal. Anderson is crafty and scathing in her role, with an infectious sardonic laugh that carried through the audience.
These stellar performances are impeded, a little, by pacing issues throughout. There is a lot of pausing, though this may just be an opening night problem. Such issues tend to wane as seasons go on.
Something less likely to wane is the tendency of some actors to deliver almost all lines as though they are grand pronouncements. True, there is something Wildean about the style of the piece, but Wilde’s characters make regular pronouncements for a particular effect. Here, incidental lines such as ‘the room next door is empty’ and even ‘oh. Yes. Thanks’ are given as much weight as the lines that carry far more significant meaning. This makes things feel a little one-note at times and as a result the tension plateaus.
The most perplexing choice made here was the inclusion of lengthy sections of ‘The Cherry Orchard’ performed entirely to the back wall. When Lydia goes onstage, the box set folds a little to reveal the rear of the meta-stage. The audience is then seated behind the actors who perform to hand-painted audience members of the rear of the actual stage… for quite some time. Full monologues are delivered to this wall in a heightened style that seems incongruous with the rest of the production. Certainly, parallels can be drawn between the events of ‘The Actress’ and the events of ‘The Cherry Orchard’, but this is far from enough to warrant this inclusion.
Much like ‘The Cherry Orchard’, it is difficult to label ‘The Actress’ as a comedy or a drama exclusively. There are brilliantly delivered moments of comedy, but the more tragic and sincere moments are also executed with precision by some experienced and intriguing performers.
Overall, ‘The Actress’ is a worthwhile production that shines through its flaws mostly thanks to the commanding performance of its leads… but it could do without the Chekov.
‘The Actress’ performs until Saturday, 28 September 2019 at Javeenbah Theatre Company. Tickets are available at Javeenbah Theatre Company’s Website.