By Helen Howard and Michael Futcher
Apart from seeing The Drowning Bride, my only other cultural outing this week was to see Star Wars Episode3 – and I found some surprising parallels. We serious Star Wars fans are a bit like those intellectual Playboy Magazine readers prepared to put up with the flashy visuals to get to the existential truths of the writing. And in the prequels, of course, we are taken back in time to discover what led to the metamorphosis of the Jedi knight Anakin into the evil Darth Vader. Central to The Drowning Bride too is a journey back into the past, as a young woman seeks to understand the transformation of her Lithuanian patriot grandfather into the reviled monster he has become in her family history.
What is revealed in Star Wars 3 (sorry to spoil it for you slack people who haven’t seen the film yet) is that it all comes down to Love, and that Anakin turns to the Dark Side in an attempt to save his wife from death. In The Drowning Bride too there are revelations about the nature of love, betrayal and personal sacrifice – but here all comparisons fail. While George Lucas gives us black and white, pure Jedi versus evil Empire and simple choices, Helen Howard and Michael Futcher present us with shades of grey, flawed and terrified people forced into making agonising decisions that will scar them forever.
The Drowning Bride is hard work for the audience no sitting back, eating popcorn, and admiring the fights, frocks, pecs, or whatever you are into. The intimate space of The Roundhouse always demands full engagement with the actors, the space they inhabit and the stories they tell. In this play particularly you have to keep your wits about you as four actors play seven characters, the scene shifting from the present in America to the past in Lithuania and back again as layer after layer is revealed.
Ellen, (Helen Christinson) who has been deeply affected by the death of her beloved grandmother Sarmitte, travels with her partner Matt (Hayden Spencer) to America to fulfil her grandmother’s dying wish. She is to tell the grandfather, whom she has never met and who is despised as a coward for having abandoned his wife and children in wartime Lithuania, that Sarmitte loved and forgave him. The grandfather Valdis (Steven Grives) proves every bit the monster she has imagined, but over the next few and very intense days she learns more about what has driven and marked him, and more about how the past can send out its tentacles to hold us back from living fully in the present.
Steven Grives is a powerhouse of energy onstage, his presence oppressive and always potentially dangerous. His voice bludgeons us the audience as much as it intimidates the characters around him. When we see him forced to be submissive and conciliatory to those who invade his home and his country, represented here by the German officer Brandt (Hayden Spencer), we know what it means to his manhood and to his sense of patriotism.
Helen Christinson brings to her dual role (Ellen and Sarmitte) such a mixture of strength and fragility that, while we admire the courage of both women, we are kept as fearful for the stability of Ellen as we are for the safety of Sarmitte throughout the story. The actor slips in and out of the roles seamlessly, and it is much to the credit of Michael Fulcher’s direction that the frequent transitions between past and present work so smoothly, enabling her to do this. In the end Helen Christinson shows us Ellen identifying so strongly with her grandmother that the characters almost merge, making the act of violence committed against Sarmitte doubly shocking.
In contrast, Helen Cassidy is able to have great fun with the difference between her two characters. We first meet her as Valdis’s tarty little niece who he has brought from Latvia (as Lithuania is now known) to look after him in America, and whom he keeps in thrall by threatening to hand her over to the immigration authorities as an illegal entrant. In the scenes from the past she is convincingly transformed into the elegant singer and actress Irma, whom Valdis later marries. This is a very confident performance, with both characters displaying depths of feeling that could easily have been missed by a less accomplished actor.
Hayden Spencer plays an equally diverse pair of characters: first Ellen’s patient partner Matt, dragged along for the encounter with the grandfather, and then, in the scenes set in the war, the arrogant German officer who forces both Valdis and Sarmitte into acts of terrible betrayal. As Matt, Hayden Spencer shows us a man worried by his fiancée’s obsession with the past and sorely tried by the aggressive Valdis. He is able to make us feel for his predicament and believe in his real concern for the future of his relationship with Ellen. While sympathising with the decision not to slip into easy and dangerous stereotyping, I would have liked a sharper contrast in bearing, speech and manner in this actor’s portrayal of Brandt, further allowing the audience to sense the steel and power of the man and share the terror of his victims.
This densely textured play, written by husband and wife team Helen Howard and Michael Futcher, is particularly interesting in that it is based on the real-life experiences of Brisbane artist, Elise Parups. Without following slavishly the details of her encounter with her past, they have crafted a story that is theatrical in all the right senses. In bringing it to life they are particularly well served by Bill Haycock’s set, which somehow manages to suggest both claustrophobic interiors and the icy wastes of terrible memories.
Of course one can be picky. The play is perhaps over-long, and I found the short opening scene poetic but unhelpful but judge for yourself. You really should go and see this play if you are at all interested in what the theatre can do. With an empty space, a gripping story and a handful of talented and imaginative people committed to telling that story, magic happens. And not a light-sabre in sight!
Directed by Michael Futcher
Playing until 18 June: Tues 6.30pm, Wed-Sat 8pm, Matinee 18 June 2pm
Running time: total including interval 2½ hours