Liberate Yourself From My Vice-Like Grip, Mutation Theatre, 294 Smith St Collingwood, Until May 27.
Mutation Theatre is a group of artists to watch, even if their latest is unsuccessful. Liberate Yourself From My Vice-Like Grip strays into a more visual style of devised theatre than their usual offering. It is an apocalyptic nightmare that homes in on the relationship between four men – possibly the last four –trapped on a ship at the end of the world.
It begins with the audience pitched into darkness. Katie Sfetkidis’ noirish lighting gradually reveals the distressing mis-en-scene, and is the only aspect of the performance that’s hard to fault. Tom Spender’s minimalist sound design starts promisingly, but resorts to a bleak and battering monotony that doesn’t give the physical theatre enough to work with and isn’t of sufficient complexity to delineate and enhance the long whimper into extinction that comprises the bulk of the work’s dramatic trajectory.
Wordless scenes of mindless repetition and sudden menace aren’t sharply realised or bound to relational characterisation of any depth. And the words, when they do come, are only rarely worth the breath and do little to shape the sense of crisis into something human.
The main trouble is the physical theatre. It needs to be as disciplined and poetic and expressive as words might have been in its stead, rather than lanky, jejune and desultory. I never felt able to disentangle my imagination from the fact that I was sitting before young actors self-consciously at work, and was secretly hoping they’d stop short of running around with underpants on their heads. They did not.
I don’t resent the experience: to experiment and fail is an essential part of artistic growth.
Uncle Vanya, by Anton Chekhov, fortyfivedownstairs, 45 Flinders Lane, Until June 3.
Given that most of Chekhov’s plays are about being bored and depressed, the one thing you can’t do with them is to bore and depress the audience. While Laurence Strangio’s Uncle Vanya doesn’t quite plunge us into that abyss, it features a cast that manages only shades of the disciplined ensemble acting required to bring Vanya to life.
Fortyfivedownstairs is the perfect venue for Chekhov, and the richly detailed, spacious design makes good use of it, with the action progressing by slow degrees from one end of the warehouse space to the other. Director Laurence Strangio largely respects the play’s text and temporality, though with a slightly Australian inflection that doesn’t always work. Flourishes devised by actors in rehearsal tend toward meretricious disimprovement on what Chekhov wrote, though the effect is minor.
For too much of the performance, though, various actors remain too much in their own bubbles, or stretch to overemphatic delivery. Richard Bligh’s Vanya, for example, is pitched too high: a caricature of anguish without the affable and half-ironic veneer that makes up the dappled surface of the character and is, except when he thinks too hard about it, also his soul. Peter Finlay’s Professor is worse still, a hammy pantomime grotesque, so you can’t see even a trace of the charismatic scholar all the other characters, who have made terrible sacrifices in his name, used to see him.
Bruce Woolley plays Astrov as a curious snail of a man, a ruined genius some unfathomable distance down the spectrum of autistic disorder and it’s a fascinating interpretation, matched only in the minor characters – Don Bridges’ unassuming Waffles, Brenda Palmer’s tranquil and affectionate portrayal of the nanny.
Louise O’Dwyer’s Elena and Sarah Ranken’s Sonya sit somewhere between, with isolated unconfident passages that dissolve, especially in their scenes together, into something more subtle and elegiac. But this is not a Vanya with the level of control needed to capture those last qualities in any sustained sense.