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The Splinter

Helen Thomson and Julia Ohannessian in Sydney Theatre Company’s The Splinter. Photographer: Brett Boardman.

Sydney Theatre Company presents THE SPLINTER by Hilary Bell at Wharf 1. (Hickson St.)

THE SPLINTER concerns a Father (Erik Thomson) and a Mother (Helen Thomson) who after a nine month agony of the ‘missingness’ of their only child, a little girl, suddenly find her returned. There is no explanation, no restorative story to fill in the nine month gap – just the physical presence of the little girl. She cannot speak. She cannot tell of her nine month absence. She just is. Is present. Her presence becomes catalyst for breakdown.For after the initial joy of the little girl’s return the Father and the Mother splinter in their response to the presence of their child. The Father becomes, gradually, certain that this little girl is not their child. His child. Mother is less definite, less certain of her husbands belief. Father becomes obsessional in his belief and the tensions between the couple grow and grow and the little child remains mute.

Hilary Bell’s text of this play is relatively spare. The scenes are short. The scenes take us on a roller coaster of emotional attenuation. The passing of time, off stage, between the staged scenes are where the drama happens.We witness the mounting sign posts of a growing illness and splintering. Tensions are turned, are screwed.

Henry James’ THE TURN OF THE SCREW, apparently was the beginning of the source of this story. However, it seemed to me that, rather, the play adaptation by William Archibald, or, more especially, because of the visual solutions of this production by Sarah Goodes and designer Renee Mulder, that the Jack Clayton filmed adaptation, THE INNOCENTS (1961), with Deborah Kerr, became a keystone to the collaborators of this scenario.

The interesting experience of this production is not just the scenes as they unravel but the manner, the form, the method, various storytelling traditions that have been incorporated, collaborated with, to stage this production. Ms Mulder has created an open space with a central double window frame fronted by a billowing curtain (it magically folds and disappears in front of our eyes, at one point) – and it has, along with the lighting (Damien Cooper) and an immersive but subtle music composition (Emily Maguire) and sound design (Steve Francis), a spooky atmospheric power. Ms Mulder has grounded the play in a large old fashioned patterned carpet of dull colourings with carefully selected old “yellowing – autumunal” feeling furniture, reflected in the carpet choice. In the program Ms Mulder says she tried with her design,”… to tread between inside and outside, landscape and mindscape, reality and fantasy.” She has succeeded admirably.

Added to this visual cleverness then, Ms Goodes has introduced puppetry (Alice Osborne) as a tool to represent the returned child. Several puppets of different scale are used and they are handled by two actors. The puppets, as with most puppets, can become mesmerizing points of endowed emotions when well owned and held.Horribly, fascinatingly real. The actors/pupeteers (Julia Ohannessian and Kate Worsley) are dressed in clothing of different period oddities and are not merely the manipulators or life force of these ‘child/dolls’ but, at different times, become spectral witnesses, in their eerie presences, of the events of the couples’ splintering. They seem to haunt the play, assisted by the lighting and sound, much like the ghosts, apparitions, in the Deborah Kerr film, of Mis Jessel and Peter Quint.

Mr Thomson begins the text with a ‘glib’ forward vocal energy that suggested a ‘style’ rather than a truth. However, it paid dividends cumulatively, as the play built to its climax. I became swept up in the rush of the overwhelming speed of the uttered but suppressed symtoms of illness, spilling and pooling and then seeping to disaster. I liked the choice better, later, than, earlier. Ms Thomson on the other hand, carries a double emotional wallop, not only the grief for her lost daughter and her return, but, also the growing sense of the loss of her husband, as well. Her performance, for me, sits more comfortably as an ‘idea’ of the woman’s journey, rather than a really experienced emotional one. I never quite believe her. The voice sits high in the body and into the head, and never really radiates from the central core of her ‘guts’ or diaphragm, where the emotions sit – the centre of the instrument. The body, thus, is not vulnerable to the necessary enrgetic means of expression. It becomes locked and not dispersive throughout. Musical range to express the variations of perception,  plus the character’s physical response were limited in the performance, I saw. Volume and speed are the principal tools. It becomes a little limited in its effectiveness and stressed for the wrong reasons. Those of the actor, not the character.

Ms Ohannessian and Worsley are best as the unemcumbered forces in the spirit world of this play. Ms Ohannessian has a more seamless identity with the puppets than Ms Worsley who does not quite disappear beside her puppet duties.The puppets here only glimmer with promise as to their possible ability to contribute to the story catalystic atmospherics. In this area of the production, not quite enough familiarity with the puppet collaboration is present. When one recollects the puppetry work from My Darling Patricia in their work AFRICA in Wharf 2 last year, or, in almost any of their productions, one can discern the dramatic differences of impact. And wait till you see the puppetry in WARHORSE (you have booked haven’t you?).

What is rewarding about this production is the seeing of a play by Ms Bell on the mainstage in Sydney. Other than WOLF LULLABY, I have never seen her work. Reading some of her other plays, I always feel a quirky fascination with the extraordinary, a kind of Tim Burton imagination. There is always that liminal sense in her imagined work of the real world immeshed with the magic of the fairy folk tale and the biblical stories of our faiths – and it is of a meshing that is not always benign. Tempting to explore, for us dreamers. In having Sarah Goodes bring this vision to the stage from the page, Ms Bell has a good and inspired ‘servant’.

See what you think.