The Ancient Greeks understood the disastrous ripple effect that our ancestors have on us, psychic trauma running through every branch of the family tree. And while the age of Ancient Greek Tragedy is over, the family drama continues to reign as a theatre staple for a good reason. It’s just like that Philip Larkin’s famous poem goes: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to but they do.” There’s just nothing quite so relatable.
In deVINE, the familial conflict of the play is set in motion when Blair, the wealthy sister who lives in the city, comes home to the family vineyard to help out overworked Bobby with their mother. It’s an awkward family reunion as any, filled with trepidation, uncomfortable silences, and bad jokes. Along with the sisters, there are also the young cousins, Esther, Jimbo and Mikah, who have their own adolescent problems to contend with.
Intertwined with the present day drama is a series of reminiscent monologues, delivered by the family matriarch Rose deVine, the same woman who is now being looked after. As the young rose, Esmee Myers is well cast, giving us a pleasant entry point to the backstory of the deVine family business, as well as telling us about her early romance with her eventual husband.
Though she delivers her recollections with a believably doe-eyed excitement of what’s to come, the eventual trajectory towards disappointment and failed dreams lacks tension, and often distracts from the flow of the more immediate drama. The revelations also aren’t as shocking as they present themselves to be, often directed with an overly melodramatic touch. But the main problem with these scenes is that the information never feels essential, and that the present day story is strong enough on its own.
As the older Rose, unable to speak or barely move, Myers isn’t isn’t given much to do, but manages to slip into the passive character without breaking our suspension of disbelief, while still feeling vital. The role of Rose’s granddaughter Esther gives Myers the most room to have fun though, often talking to the vines around the vineyard that evokes childlike innocence in all its heartwarming naivety.
Romy Hooper and Cian Elyse White have the more dramatically satisfying characters, given they have more opportunity to interact and verbally spar with each other, whether as sisters, Bobby and Blair, or cousins, Jimbo and Mikah, respectively. As they attempt to avoid or share blame, play pranks or avoid direct and honest communication, there remains a deep understanding of how people really talk to each other that underpins their performances. It’s also a testament to the uncredited writing that the tensions feel realistically developed. Even the most juvenile moments of behaviour are underscored by a seriousness, grounded in the reality of the situation.
Under the direction of Morgana O’Reilly, the convention of having three actors play all the characters works effectively, each character coloured in realistically and distinctly from one another. There are a few moments, particularly when the scene is bursting with too many characters, that the flow of tension is slightly broken, but overall it’s an impressive achievement building an ensemble cast of seven (if you consider young and old Rose as separate). It’s also notable that the company of three actresses have created a show with an emphasis on strong female characters, where the patriarchal figures are no longer around.
The spareness of the set, consisting simply of a clotheslines and vines is simple and effective, a reminder of both the family vineyard and the now overbearing domestic anxieties, but it feels more suited to the monologues, touching on the abstract memories of Rose, than it is to the naturalistic setting in the present day. Unlike most domestic dramas, where the family home itself feels like a character, this one never quite comes alive in the design.
The references to mental health awareness in the publicity materials is a minor distraction and somewhat misleading. While Rose deVine’s dementia and health is crucial to the story, it’s never explored in-depth. But it’s neither treated flippantly either; it’s just a smaller part of what makes this family the way they are.
If the deVine family, despite their woes, are far less grandiose than than the tragic figures of Sophocles’s Oedipus family, their concerns are ultimately more everyday and common, and ultimately more relatable. This is less a classical tragedy and more a contemporary dramedy, evoking shades of the families we see on TV, with a quintessential kiwi touch.
At barely an hour long, deVINE doesn’t have enough time to really delve into the backstories and lives of all the characters, but it manages to leave you wanting more rather than simply dissatisfied. And while the story resolves itself a bit too easily, skipping towards a resolution by removing the stakes, it still manages to be a moving and funny portrait of the ways families fuck each other up, but nonetheless need each other.
deVINE is presented by REcollective Theatre Company and plays until 11 Feb. Details see The Basement.