Pleasantly controversial [by Matt Baker]
Regardless of whether one believes in it or not, climate change is undoubtedly a hot topic, and British playwright Richard Bean has clearly done his homework on the subject. While The Heretic could easily be a vehicle for playwright pontification, there is nothing terribly dogmatic in Bean’s writing, nor is the character of Dr. Diane Cassell by any means elevated to anything other than scientist, lecturer, and mother.
Jennifer Ward-Lealand is appropriately cast as said doctor, with a drive that is factored by technicality rather than emotion. As Professor Kevin Maloney, Stelios Yiakmis balances the right amount of respect, frustration, and love for Diane, but holds back, especially vocally, when the gloves come off. His nonchalant asides are brilliantly timed, especially in the second act.
Jess Holly Bates gives a no holds barred performance and projects a level of ferocity that is maintained and justified through the consistency of her heightened emotions; the capriciousness of her character being acceptable purely through the clarity of her thought processes. Jordan Mooney finds a great variety of play in his dialogue, not simply relying on the words to do the work for him. Andrew Grainger does what Andrew Grainger was hired to do – give an Andrew Grainger performance. It’s a fantastic lesson in pantomime, but it doesn’t necessarily serve the play even as comic relief.
The majority of accents are questionable, and, while John Verryt’s set design is nicely detailed and gives a sense of isolation in the second act, I’ve never seen a university of such slick and immaculate design. Sara Taylor’s costume design suitably reflects the characters’ personalities, and cleverly covers Bates’ ‘anorexic’ physique. Director Alison Quigan keeps the character dynamics in constant motion, preventing the first act from turning into a mundane lecture, maintaining both its intellectualism and its humour.
The two acts of the play are worlds apart, with the first focusing on the content and the second focusing on the relationships between characters. The wrapping up of the content in act two, which requires studious attention from the audience, is still left with unanswered questions in regards to Hampshire University’s tree-ring circus*, and the amount of time spent on the relationships, which is adequately set up in the first act, feels slightly melodramatic and seems to overshadow the original style of the play. The biggest character ‘twist’ is by far the weakest option, and everything is wrapped in a nice deus ex machina bow. Like science, this play does not offer opinions, but it is a great work for anyone who is interested.
* That’s not a typo; it’s a pun.
The Heretic is presented by Auckland Theatre Company and plays until 10 August. For details see Maidment Theatre