The Woman Before

Bille Brown Studio (Queensland Theatre Company)


By Roland Schimmelpfennig

Professional production

When Barabas, in Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta, is reminded that in the past he has committed fornication, he replies carelessly, “but that was in another country, and besides, the wench is dead”. Such a breezy dismissal of past vows and responsibility has got a lot of men into trouble over the centuries for, as the central character in Roland Schimmelpfennig’s play discovers, the past is not always so easily shaken off.

QTC’s current production, while it may divide audiences, runs no risk of boring them. It is a troubling piece, exploring as it does the problematic relationship between our past and present selves and our current responsibility for earlier commitments; particularly those promises made in the name of love.

The play opens in a reassuringly concrete present with a long-married couple, Frank and Claudia, and their teen-aged son, Andi, packing up their house for a move to a new life far away. All sense of normality is shattered when a woman arrives, claiming to be the husband’s lover from 24 years ago who has come to keep him to his youthful promise to love her for ever.

It is at this point that the play could have gone down the well-worn path of domestic farce, with the hapless husband desperately trying to keep wife and earlier mistress apart and the newcomer re-appearing inconveniently throughout the play and threatening (happily, unsuccessfully in the end) to destroy his domestic idyll. For a few moments the audience is lulled into thinking that this is, in fact, the direction that the plot will take. However, Schimmelpfennig’s theme is a much darker one, and it gradually becomes evident that, once readmitted to his present, this woman from the past will wreak a dreadful havoc in Frank’s life which he is powerless to avert.

As Frank, Paul Bishop shows us a man for whom the past is, conveniently, another country and for whom past liaisons are well and truly dead. He leaves the audience unsure whether he does, in fact, recall any of what Romy claims they shared, or whether it is possible that it might all be a figment of her disturbed mind. Audiences can decide for themselves whether his willingness to consider abandoning his family for her is more than a middle-aged man’s momentary fantasy of escaping a tired marriage, or a recognition that, as she claims, their love was eternal. There is considerable ambiguity in Frank’s character, and Paul Bishop delivers a characteristically well nuanced performance.

Christen O’Leary is mesmerising as the mysterious Romy. Outwardly elegant, calm and pleasant, she nevertheless radiates strength and menace, and not for a moment do we question or underestimate her power to destroy what she cannot have. Her callous treatment of Frank’s son Andi when she discovers that, like his father, he can love and still reject his girlfriend, is made to appear totally logical in such a driven woman. Medea-like, Romy is relentless in her punishment of what she sees as her betrayal, and her revenge is likewise horrific.

Claudia, Frank’s wife, represents the reality that is doomed by Romy’s emergence from her husband’s past. Her peace of mind is destroyed, not so much by Romy’s existence, as by the fact that Frank has never mentioned her in nineteen years of marriage. Wanting to trust her husband, she is nevertheless unsettled by what she sees as his deliberate concealment – a response that Frank, like many men perhaps, finds hard to understand. Anne Pensalfini gives her a credibility that is all the more effective because, though her character is an innocent victim, she never plays for audience sympathy, making Claudia’s fate all the more shocking.

Anthony Standish plays Andi, the younger version of his father, and Emily Tomlins his girlfriend Tina who serves almost as a chorus to the action. Emily Tomlins has proved a versatile and engaging Emerging Artist for QTC, and in her very personal reading of Tina she adds a much-needed lightness to this increasingly grim tale.

Schimmelpfennig chooses to employ a fractured narrative for this modern story of imagined betrayal and very real revenge. Fragments of scenes are played, then replayed in context; a technique more familiar to modern movie-goers than to theatre audiences. While adding an element of novelty and possibly Brechtian alienation, it is not at all clear that this device adds much else of significance to the play. The repetition does not serve to further illuminate motivation or character, nor does it successfully signify underlying ironies or mythic resonances; eventually prompting in this viewer irritation at what seemed more like gimmickry than theatrical innovation.

Any other faults in this assured production can more properly be laid at the door of the writer or translator rather than that of the cast or director. There were a few disturbingly awkward lines and moments in the play that did not ring true such as the scene when Frank is uncharacteristically cruel to his wife to which the audience reacted with audible incredulity. If this were a deliberate effect the writer wanted to achieve, it was neither prepared for nor followed up effectively and therefore difficult to justify. It might be that a different approach from the director could have helped the actors over these particular hurdles, but overall the directorial hand was confident and Jon Halpin was very well served by his sound and lighting designers, Brett Collery and Matt Scott. Robert Kemp’s set effortlessly spanned the cinemascopic Bille Brown stage; its white expanse a fitting frame for the tragic action.

There is much to think and talk about in this play which takes the audience on a fast-moving ride from the domestic normality of the opening to the mythic nightmare of its conclusion. There have been many novels and plays written about the unwelcome intrusion of the past into ordered lives and the poisonous effects of revenge and this play delivers an interesting take on an ancient theme.

Directed by Jon Halpin

Playing until: 14 October 2006: Tuesday 6:30pm, Wed-Sat 7:30pm, Wednesday matinees 1pm, Saturday matinees 2pm

Running time:75 mins, no interval

— Maureen Strugnell
(Performance seen: Wed 20th September 2006)