Harrogate Theatre, Friday 13th May, 2016.
By far the most impressive aspect of this Square Peg Theatre and Harrogate Theatre production were the shifts in perspective. Four pink squares of movable carpet in ‘Madame’s’ bedroom were used to represent four corners of the room, with our two protagonists facing out to the audience while speaking to each other, before, with some clever and well sustained footwork, they joined their counterpart in their ‘section’ of the room. This was a powerful way to present what could have been quite a static play as a well crafted example of the merits of a more conceptual use of space.
The fact that the actresses performed so much of the script directly towards the audience, allowed us the privileged position of being on the receiving end of every shifting emotion. For a play drenched in erratic, disturbing shifts in the dynamics of the sisters’ relationship, this device was an excellent and intelligent choice. I have the utmost respect for actors able to perform this trickery in such an intimate space as in Studio theatres and not once did they fail to complete the fancy footwork when shifting our perspective by joining a new corner of the room. The audience were also able to enjoy the humorous capabilities of this approach with the arrival of ‘Madame’ and her vain practising of expressions in the ‘mirror’; inviting us to enjoy this undetected intrusion into her private moments and join the sisters in their disdainful mockery.
The other aspects of physical theatre were also impressive to see; every movement was perfectly timed and clever little details like the holding up of a satin dress as the curtains, would not have been nearly so effective had this company not made the transitions so slick as to be barely noticeable (but for the appreciation of the skill). Equally, the farce of the teacup was a great showcasing of comic timing and use of physicality.
There were powerful performances from Katie Robinson and Olivia Sweeney as Solange and Claire, respectively. Katie’s performance as Solange was fantastically uncomfortable and arrestingly sensitive. Those chaotic monologues betraying her apparent growing psychosis were brilliantly played; particularly impressive for those in her eye line as she spat her venom at imaginary entities. Olivia’s performance as Claire, the younger sister battling for some sense of ownership in her helpless situation, was entirely believable and the more sensitive moments in this role allowed her to showcase both malignant rage and great vulnerability; quite a feat in such an intense production with no interval. Deborah Pugh was eventually transformed from the invisible hands of furniture and prop provider to the outlandish, delusional Madame and it was a relief to see her step out of the shadows to match her counterparts in their accomplished performances.
Having no prior knowledge of the play, I misguidedly found that the amusing opening became rather unbearable as time went on… Claire opens the play with an exaggerated, melodramatic performance that quickly became grating and I found myself thinking ‘Dear God…is this the mistress? Will she be like this the whole time?’ Even the glimpses of hair beneath the wig didn’t tip me off sufficiently; I presumed the actress had been in a rush to get to the stage… It then of course transpired that this was the audacious maid dressing up in ‘Madame’s’ finery for some disturbing role play. It was only when the real ‘Madame’ arrived that the brilliance of that original, painfully hysterical rendition was discovered.
My only real criticism of this production is the lack of interval. While I completely understand the justification of preserving the intensity on stage by not disrupting the action or atmosphere, I did find my attention drifting at times, despite the excellent performances of the actors. I have no real addiction to interval ice cream and I am not yet of an age to be in need of a guaranteed bathroom break, but the intense nature of the play itself would have made an interval justifiable. It was a shame to feel myself drifting when an interval would have allowed digestion of the details and allow for sustained focus in the latter half, where the scenes were more challenging. However, for those who do not shy away from productions of a certain age and style in terms of the language used, I would absolutely recommend the production; the brilliant visual of the shifting perspectives alone is reason enough, but the talents of the actresses are likewise well worth your time and money.