When a theatre has a well-oiled publicity machine, it’s impossible to go to a play without some preconceptions about what you’re going to see. So, by the time I sat down to Svetlana, or Sveta, as she’s called by her family, I was fully expecting to see a black comedic reprisal of my own experiences as a migrant in post-war Australia.
What I got was a variation on the much darker theme of A Long Day’s Journey into Night : the collapse of a family around the disintegration of a mother. In Svetlana, the tragedy is madness rather than drugs, and the cause has not come from within the home, but from a vulnerable woman’s capitulation to the after-effects of living through the devastation of the war in Europe as a Russian Jew.
This history provides a context for the Fretlov family, and there are occasional excursions into the contrasting outside world of 1960s suburban Australia in which they are now living. Most of the action of the play, however, is focussed on what happens within the home over a few critical days. The eat-in kitchen is at the heart, and heat, of the conflicts that flare up between the various members of the family. And Kate Stewart’s stage setting, while simple, is very effective in conveying the claustrophobia of a poor migrant family whose dreams provide an occasional escape from unbearable realities.
While the subject matter is bleak, it does come with a comic overlay, and the preview audience found plenty to laugh at in some of the snappy confrontations between the main characters. This is very much an ensemble piece, with strong roles for each of the actors as they represent a complex set of relationships. Gabriella Di Labio gives Ludmilla, the mother, a faded glamour that helps to account for her chequered history, and an edgy hysteria that makes her exasperated husband’s final decision at least understandable. As played by Michael Futcher, he has some good moments, particularly in a moving scene with his brother. At other times, however, his character had less definition, and seemed to serve more to explain than to dramatise elements of the plot. And, as the character who sets the scene for the play, his introductory song presented as he danced around the stage of this theatre-in-the-round was at times difficult to hear: a definite drawback when its purpose was to lead in to the events to come.
This play uses the device of an adult actor, Katrina Devery, in the role of twelve-year-old Sveta, who is the central character; and in her Director’s Note, Therese Collie suggests that this is to provide yet another dimension to the play, as a reworking of memories by “the middle-aged Sveta of 2001”. This is useful to know, but I’m not quite sure that it works in this production. Devery brings a lot of power and energy to her role, but her maturity prevents her from fitting comfortably into the shoes of a vulnerable child who wants to escape to the stars. As her half sister, Sonya, Melinda Butel is a peppy contrast who really does seem to have come from another planet to the rest of her family. She also gets to do a couple of the more jarring scenes that don’t seem to fit in with the rest of the play.
James Stewart had a lot of fun playing everybody else, from a schoolboy to the Man in Black. He did them all well, with verve, and was able to give each of his characters distinctive differences that made them interesting in their own right.
Cigarettes and music also played important roles in setting the scene for the swinging ’60s. All the cast members called upon to sing did so capably, and as the sign in the lobby declaimed while smoking is not condoned by the theatre, it is an integral part of the play (and was performed in the ways that I remember it from those pre-cancer conscious days).
Essentially, however, what playwright Valentina Levkowicz has given us here is a ’60s setting for a raw, if somewhat uneven, drama around the universal theme of family life, drawing on the tensions that can be sparked by any one of a number of possible reasons, and compounded to devastating effect when one member falls prey to mental illness.