Part of The Court Theatre’s Forge season, an alternative programme to their mainbill productions, Jacqueline Goldfinger’s The Arsonists plays like a homage to great American playwrights such as Tennessee Williams and Sam Shepard. Described as a love letter to her father, Goldfinger’s narrative is focussed around the parental-child relationship of M (Monique Clementson) and H (Roy Snow). Their names suggest universality but the conditions of their family are wholly unique. Being a family of professional arsonists is ripe dramatic territory, and the premise certainly crackles with interest on paper; the execution, however, doesn’t quite click, and will leave those hungry for dramatic fireworks wanting more. That Goldfinger opts for a more subtle, slow-burn approach rather than glamorising the subject is respectable though.
The play’s entire aesthetic and themes are built around a southern gothic sensibility, but this sensibility doesn’t always translate well, particularly within a Kiwi context. Part of the issue is that it simply uses its gothic sensibility as a backdrop, never specifying the conditions of the world of the play. This vagueness doesn’t allow for the detailed world-building you might expect from aforementioned predecessors such as Williams or Shepard. It’s these specific details that typically allow for a greater sense of context. In Goldfinger’s world we are closer to dream logic. And while this makes for a moody and evocative setting, we never gain a sense of time or place.
The opening moments of the play, the action occuring in media res, begin with a mixture of explosive profanity and disaster, pulling us right into the heart of the play. But because the play’s patriarch H starts off dead, and we simply watch him lurch in limbo, the direction of the story is a foregone conclusion, as we wait for his ghost to slowly but surely pass over.
Because the rest of the play has no real hook or plot to keep the audience engaged, it rests squarely on Goldfinger’s language and familial exposition. And while it’s sumptuous language, fusing poeticism with brutality in every syllable, it serves no greater purpose. Under Dan Bain’s direction, the language is honoured carefully, but perhaps overly so. Silences and pauses almost punctuate every sentence to the point where every line risks feeling overlaboured and melodramatic. Clemenston and Snow do an admirable job, bringing the characters to life, but the characters never escape the heaviness of the situation. One respects the performances, but it’s difficult to enjoy them. The production’s finest moments achieve a Beckettian absurdity, but these are few and far between.
The set (Richard Van Den Berg) and lighting (Paul Johnson) are also powerfully evocative but, like the characters, feel lost in limbo. This is a location that takes place in no real discernable time or discernable period. What should echo the lineage of great American theatre history instead feels a few steps away from parody. While the dialogue has moments of real lyricism, heightening language with an understated musicality, the script feels like a hollow exercise in style over substance.
One of the few distractions from the bleak landscape of the play are the musical asides that occur throughout. Musical director Richard Marrett successfully weaves these into the production so that they don’t feel out of place, making them a welcome and gentle reprieve.
The play occasionally hints at more interesting layers and textures, with various Greek references and the father’s philosophically black humour. These pepperings hint at a more fully realised script that hasn’t quite reached its potential.
Jacqueline Goldfinger’s The Arsonists starts off with a literal and figurative bang, only to slowly descend into a whimper. Those with a desire to trek through the moody enviros of the southern gothic will find The Court’s production worth interest. And as a lesser known piece, The Arsonists is an interesting detour through the annals of contemporary American theatre. But those looking for a substantial narrative are better off waiting for the more established likes of Williams’ Streetcar and Taylor Mac’s Hir arriving later in The Court’s season.
The Arsonists plays Christchurch’s Court Theatre until 7 September.