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Photo by Brett Boardman

Wicked Sisters (Theatre Review)

Griffin Theatre presents WICKED SISTERS, by Alma de Groen, at the Reginald Theatre, in the Seymour Centre, Chippendale, Sydney University. 6th November - 12 December 2020.

The Griffin Theatre premiered WICKED SISTERS sometime in the early 2000’s and this is a revival of the work for the same company. This play was written in 2002. Alma de Groen is one of those great writers of plays.

Alma de Groen was born in New Zealand but pursued a life as a playwright in Australia. Her work, contextually, came forth in the so-called era of the Second Wave Feminism. This play, unusually, has a cast of four women, who being over the age of fifty are the surviving elders of a niche university clique who were, supposedly, friends and activists of different commitment motivations at a vital time in their life development.

When the play begins, Meridee Hobbes (Vanessa Downing), has been a widow for 15 years to a ‘brilliant’ scientist of Darwinian origin/persuasion. He had been developing a computer algorithm as an Artificial Intelligence Researcher – Alec Hobbes – at a university who believed and still believes passionately in his work so that his computer program has been kept active all this time. Alec Hobbes is dead but his Artificial Intelligence propositions stiil pulse with life. Four women who were influenced by this man come together to celebrate his birthday and reacquaint themselves, and ostensibly, for two of them, to bring ‘back to life’ the grieving widow.

One can presume that the choice of Hobbes as the surname of this relatively contemporary scientist/researcher, from Ms de Groen, is a meaningful clue as to what the core of the play might be about. Thomas Hobbes was an English philosopher who in his major book LEVIATHAN (1651), proffered a discussion and philosophy investigating the relationship between natural and legal rights – and to the possibility that on surrendering some of our freedoms we can submit to the authority of a ruler (or rulers) to create security for a civil community/society.

It is indeed a provocative premise as we allow today, in 2020, our own elected government, under the panic of the COVID pandemic, to take some of our freedoms, having us believe it is for the greater good for now and the future. That Alec is also a Darwinist believing in the survival of the fittest, we watch his active algorithm on the screens surrounding the Set Design of Alec’s study/studio (Tobhiyah Stone Feller) destroy many ‘lives’/screen blips in his visually multiplying algorithmic community!

If only there was a more possible glimmer of the subject debate in the foreground of this production of WICKED SISTERS we might have had a more valuable time spent in the Reginald Theatre. Instead we have in the foreground of this time spent, a reunion of four female once best friends, who bitch about their consequent lives that has led them to make choices that resulted in a huge diminishment of their youthful ideals. Cheating, lying, deceiving, coveting, wallowing and devaluing the mores of the world they live in, their venal crimes, with and on each other, are painfully, and in this production, painstakingly, revealed.

Bemused by the performances in this production I felt that I was watching a ninety minute special of the American television sitcom from the late nineteen eighties, early nineteen nineties of, THE GOLDEN GIRLS : a text of wise cracking put downs and systemic cruelty that passed as humour and that may have a social enlightenment. Instead of the cast of Beatrice Arthur, Betty White, Rue McClanahan and Estelle Getty espousing and solving the wit and social dilemmas re-created in comic formulas by Susan Harris, which, all inevitably in the Darwinian sense of the survival of the fittest, had the ambition of positive social change but instead devolved over an eight year, one hundred and eighty episodes ‘run’, to ‘crash and burn’ like the metaphoric inventions in Alec Hobbes’ algorithm, In WICKED SISTERS we have a cliche grouping of archetypes rubbing injuriously up against each other at an uncatered party with not enough table or chairs for the guests to eat and drink off : the unrequited wife, Meridee, played by Vanessa Downing, ineptly hosting a reunion for some friends from University days; the sexually charged, ebullient golden-hearted real estate agent, Lydia, in the grips of Deborah Galanos; and the sexually frustrated but successful personal business manager, Judith, haunted by Hannah Waterman. But there is a surprise, there arrives a gate-crasher : the long ago betrayed science student, Hester, who shocked and destroyed because of stolen intellectual property, has travelled down a road of personal abuse, who now seeks a future by grafting a revenge that will benefit the down and out among her new ‘community’ – her like-sufferers – inhabited creatively with a dry-as-a-bone cynicism by Di Adams.

This play’s performance is not all disaster; it just doesn’t fulfil its ambitions. But that is not just because of the writing of the intellectual arguments of the concept with such cliche characters, from Ms de Groen, it is also because the Director, Nadia Tass, a film director, has not been able to assist her actors to develop a backstory to bring these women together as competitive but emotionally and intellectually bonded friends, companions.

Most of these performances are acted AT each other rather than WITH each other. The beings we are observing in this production seem to be meeting each other for the first time – they talk to each other but do not seem to hear one another so that there can be a feasible or acceptable human progress going on. We can read the cause of these characters but not the affect on these characters. No-one seems to be in the same play.

It is, mostly, a disappointing night in the theatre. I wrote early in this response to the Griffin production of this play that Alma de Groen is a great playwright. Personally, I believe her plays THE RIVERS OF CHINA (1987) and THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW (1999) are two outstanding concepts and resolutions of philosophical science fiction existing in the Australian cannon. Find them and read them. They are well worth the effort.