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That Face


Company B Belvoir presents THAT FACE by Polly Stenham at Belvoir St Theatre.

One of the major centres for contemporary writing, “ a new writing powerhouse”, in the UK is the Royal Court. In all of its manifestations, it has been, for a very long time. My memory of my History of Theatre lectures, as a student, take me back to G.B. Shaw and Harley Granville Barker dreams of a National Theatre and this building. Certainly the John Osborne LOOK BACK IN ANGER ‘bomb’ resonated from there (1957) and changed what was, then, newly acceptable on our stages. From drawing rooms to a kitchen sink. Its history of new writing and production is deservedly great. (Premieres by Churchill, Stoppard, Arden, Hampton, Feehily, Bean, Pinter, Beckett, Ionesco, Bond, Butterworth, Crimp, Hare, Kane, Mamet, McDonagh, Stephens, Tucker Green, Soyinka, Gilman, Shinn, Harris, Walsh, Sigarev, Prebble, (Roy) Williams, Butler among others!!!!)

The Artistic Director (since 2007) Dominic Cooke, when taking the helm of the Royal Court “promised to take us from the theatre’s usual council estates to the purlieus of the bourgeoisie” – “he thinks the denizens of SW1 ( The theatre’s London address) have spent too much time goggling the poor, and that they should have a goggle at their well-heeled selves.” Perhaps the Belvoir think so too. Almost three years after its World premiere (April, 2007) and one year after its Australian Premiere in Brisbane (The Queensland Theatre Company), Polly Stenham’s THAT FACE is on show in Sydney.

This is a very strong first play. Interesting and compelling. Made more ‘remarkable’ by the relative youthfulness of its author, Ms Stenham. She wrote this when she was 19. But no matter the age of the writer, the perspicacity of the vision of the world that the play reveals and the skill that is present in the writing, this is a play speaking about a place of our times, well.

This is not some grungy world of disaffected, addicted, angry, adrift outer or inner urbanites but of a well off middle class contemporary family- any of our leafy suburbs of money would do – a family in the aftermath of divorce and “abandoned” first family with all of the possible attendant emotional adjustments, mal or otherwise. On an off white/grey box set of leaning “stage” walls, the four locations of the play are stylistically scattered about the stage with the central area dominated by a large bed, with a glass chandelier suspended, refracting light, in the back corner, signifying wealth(?) (Set Design: Brian Thomson), the principal arena of action.

We begin the play in a boarding school dorm where the teenage head of dorm, Izzy (Krew Boylan), and her deputy, Mia (Emily Barclay) are interrogating (hazing?) one of the younger “dorm sisters’’, Alice (Laura Hopkinson) about her wearing of a religious symbol. It turns into a school disaster when we discover that to calm the victim Mia has drugged the girl with “fifty mills” of her mother’s prescription sleeping pills. Hospital and discovery is inevitable. Parents will be notified. They are. We move to the central bed where two bodies lie in what could be a post coital sleep. The female, Martha (Susie Porter), stirs and goes off for coffee. The male, a man/boy, (definitely an object of Germaine Greer’s essay observations) Henry (Kenji Fitzgerald), awakes. Gradually we discover this is a mother and son pairing and that the relationship between parent and sibling is oddly, terribly reversed. Martha is an addicted alcoholic, pill popper. Henry a school absconder carer, (with dreams of being an artist) who has undertaken the role of “parent” for the mother. Enter the expelled Mia and a subtle battle between the mother and daughter over the possession and welfare of Henry unravels. Mia succeeds in taking Henry away, even for a momentary period of time, and even destroys an explanation note that Henry had written to ease Martha’s distress. This results in Martha responding with tantrum and petty revenge. The bedroom becomes a distressed zone of collateral damage (cut up clothes and alcohol debris) and climatically the father, ex-husband, Hugh (Marcus Graham) arrives after an emergency flight from Hong Kong. Dad with an open cheque book “solves” the emergencies, the least of which is the departure of Martha to psychiatric care and Henry, damaged but free of the burden of parenthood.

“A lady can’t be taken away. A lady must have dignity. A lady must go….. herself. If I don’t go, they’ll take me. To a bad place. I won’t be able to see you. And I want to see you. I want to see that face. My baby’s face….”

Here is a play written by a young woman, about her parent’s generation, looking at what may be a sample of the social consequences of the libertarianism of the sixties. It is a serious treatment of the parental relationships satirised by Jennifer Saunders in her television series ABSOLUTELY FABULOUS. But this work is serious in its tenor, although even here, there is much black and subversive humour. It may reflect the consequences of a generation of adults who in pursuit of the “corporate” drive for materialistic success have lost the gift of empathy and sympathy for other humans other than themselves. That the care even of their own off spring is a secondary activity, to their own comfort gratification. The absent, cheque book toting father, Hugh, in the rising to closure of the final pages of the play says to his bereft, emotionally overburdened son, in the presence of his daughter: “You did what you could Henry. You’re a good boy – (Sighs) to bad parents….”

This production (Director, Lee Lewis) on opening night, was nervous and sometimes a little askew in tempo and energy communication, but the play and the work of the artistic team was generally strong and supported by the artistic integrity of all.

Susie Porter as Martha is most wonderful in all of the demanding tasks of the spiky, wrecked Martha. The thoughtful, deeply subterranean pain of the woman, along with the wilfully adopted tactics of manipulation of all around her to sustain her selfish but desperate needs, are drawn with great delicacy, insight and instrument skill. On television Ms Porter has again and again demonstrated the sensibility of a great actress. It is wonderful to see her challenged in the theatre, live, (after such thankless opportunities, where her gifts were hardly put to the test: RIFLEMIND, for example.) and one is eager for her to be continued to be employed in the theatre so that the full potential of her gifts are stretched and witnessed. Marcus Graham in a belated entrance in the last third of the play impresses once again with a thoughtful, calibrated set of choices that are subsumed into a mixture that causes both rejection and growing empathy as the play devolves for the recalcitrant father figure, Hugh.

In his professional debut in Sydney, Kenji Fitzgerald is not daunted by the emotional scale and depth of Henry’s formidable journey, proposed by Ms Stenham, and, as time passes it should grow more certain and more composed. The playing between Ms Porter and Mr Fitzgerald in their long emotionally fraught scenes is fascinating to appreciate. In tune and in support of each other, delicatedly, concentratedly. Ms Barclay gives a tremendous cinematic performance in its details but like her work in the recent David Hare play, GETHSEMANE, lacks the communication skills for the space she is working in. (I was in H row, high up on the side.)

The lighting (Designer, Verity Hampson), was as usual deft and subtle in its dramatic support of the production.The costume design by Alice Babidge requires special attention for its astuteness and clarity of support to the production. This is great work, I mean great.

This is for me, the best work that I have seen from Lee Lewis as Director.

However, I did feel, especially in the scenes when the younger actors were the scene creators, that there was a striving for a “real” stylistic creative expression in contrast say to a “theatrical” mode of stylistic expression which resulted, for me, in a diminishing of energy and clarity and a feeling of being engaged and disengaged with the playing of the text, in those early scenes. (Ms Lewis has similarly explored this sensibility in last year’s production of Sigarev’s LADYBIRD in the B Sharp season to varying degrees of success, for me. [Kristine Langdon-Smith similarly advocated this realistic style in her production of EAST IS EAST at NIDA last year. It was so real that it was like watching paint dry and not always telling its story to the audience, sometimes inaudible in its fashioning – poor writer – reality is generally boring to watch unfold.] Life works in the real world, theatrical life works in the theatre. Even the cinema is composed to look and sound like life. But it is never real as in documentary – see how long you stay with Andy Warhol’s fixed camera films. American afternoon soap opera is the nearest to real life tempo I have endured on Television, and one knows how boring that can be, except to the almost comatosed!!) It is not as radical an exploration of real life as theatre as the Melbourne RANTERS THEATRE (The Cortese brothers) experiments, which we saw, part of, last year at the Griffin, in their production HOLIDAY, but it seems to me a conscious experiment on the part of Ms Lewis. I am not convinced of its merit, particularly in the writing of Ms Stenham [I am, similarly, not certain that translating the text to Australian sounds is a gain or necessary. In the program note by Alyssa McDonald from the Weekend Australian 23-24 January 2010: “But she (Polly Stenham) points out that while her style takes its cues from American theatre, the play’s content, in particular ‘all the class stuff’ is particularly English.”]

In that same program note Ms Stenham talks of the American theatre influences: Tennessee Williams [She mentions A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE particularly, and there are some shadows of the Blanche predicament, but I feel that SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER is more relevant a reference. The battle of Mrs Venables and Catherine Holly for Sebastian resonates with the Martha and Mia struggle for Henry.] and Edward Albee. Now both these American writers, to play successfully, require a heightened theatrical reality to succeed. Not real. It was pregnant for me, that with the entrance of Mr Graham (using a fairly “plummy” dialect in contrast to the other actors) in the latter section of the play, that he and Ms Porter inflammed the acting expression into what I felt was the right level of firey theatricality. The performance began to vividly resonate both in its drama and its comedy more. The early scenes with just the young actors seemed to miss the comedy and the mounting “melodrama” of their situations.

It may of course may have been just nerves on opening night and relative inexperience on the part of the younger performers that I gained this impression of style exploration. It will be interesting to see this production again later in the season to test these ruminations.

To go back to the opening of this impression of THAT FACE and my rambling on the Royal Court, Polly Stenham was a member of the Young Writer’s Program (YPG) writer’s group in 2005. That the nurturing of her prodigality has resulted in this amazingly startling work (now followed up with a second play TUSK TUSK – to be seen later this year in Sydney) at such a young age is a reason for envy of the health and wisdom of such support.

This week the new organisation Playwriting Australia has just finished a National Play Festival in Brisbane. NIDA has begun a more engaged (2010) Writing course under the aegis of Jane Bodie. With The Sydney Theatre Company’s convening and sustaining of its young company THE RESIDENTS, the primary and causal work of the writer may be getting the right and necessary development attention it needs. (This is a Sydney perspective – Melbourne and the other cities have developments engaged as well.) We look forward for a more sophisticated and in-depth development for the writer.

Playing now until 14 March.
For more information or to book click here.

1 replies to “That Face”

  1. I was not a fan of this production. It felt like it was pieced together by artists attempting to understand a life they do not. The urinating scene and drug scene were particular lows. I do agree that suzie porter is fabulous none-the-less.

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