Not your classic ‘bathroom’ drama [by James Wenley]
In The Only Child, actor Stephen Lovatt spends most of his time in the bath.
If this sounds like taking it easy as an actor, it is anything but. From the bathtub Lovatt, naked - physically and emotionally, delivers an intense performance as a father dealing with profound loss, grief and, most harrowing of all, guilt.
It is a standout performance amongst an already impressive cast of Claire Chitham, Josephine Davison and Sam Snedden. Easily deserving of the ‘Best Actor in a bathtub’ award, I’d venture further to call it the performance of the year. He is one of many good reasons to see this production.
The Only Child was adapted by rising Australian auteur Simon Stone from Little Eyolf, one of Henrik Ibsen’s lesser performed works, written in 1894. Stone, 26, has created a name for himself with bold, sometimes controversial modern revisionist works of theatre classics and pushing theatrical boundaries. For his version of The Wildest Duck he placed his actors in a glass box, unable to see their audience. For its New Zealand debut, The Only Child is fittingly directed by Shane Bosher and presented by Silo Theatre who this year especially (excepting perhaps that Vodka show) have refreshed themselves and really delivered potent and exciting theatre in The Brothers Size and I love you Bro.
The broad strokes of the play are Ibsen’s - Stone in the program says the play “is probably still Ibsen’s” and “merely a 21st Century of Little Eyolf”. As I haven’t read the original I’ll have to trust Stone, who does list the major changes, and I suspect it would make quite an interesting study. In The Only Child, Rita and Alfred’s crippled 9 year old son Eyolf is missing. Under the pressure, accusations fly – he wasn’t there for the child, she wishes Eyolf had never been born. Complicating their central relationship are Alfred’s half-sister Asta (Claire Chitham), who together share an incestual subtext, and Asta’s suitor Henrik (Sam Sneddon), who she regrets sleeping with.
The entirety of the play takes place in the bathroom, the space where we carry out our most private and intimate business, the space we shut the door on, the space we do not speak of, the space that is taboo. The perfect space then for the layers of secrets to be revealed and bodies and souls to be stripped bare.
Curiously, I thought at first, this usually intimate space is expansive on The Herald Theatre stage. While it seems Alfred and Rita do have some money , I don’t think they would have a bathroom as big as this, filled only by a solo bath that is dwarfed by the room. Simon Coleman’s set is certainly not of the realist, but of the metaphorical. The room is bordered by translucent walls (the fourth wall still remaining intact) - the private is exposed. I was fascinated by the reflections of the actors cast on these walls, distorting the actors’ bodies like mirrors at fun parks. It was as if dark shadows of the characters followed them, or absurd caricatures of themselves mocked them. Maybe it was their true ugliness reflected back at themselves.
This would be an entirely different play in smaller ‘realist’ bathroom space and a smaller stage – and positively claustrophobic. In here the spaces and distance between characters loom larger.
Scenes are both long and talky ala Ibsen, but also sometimes quick and punchy, revealing their purpose simply, aided by some excellent lighting support (also Coleman).
None of the characters are particularly likeable, though this is no bad thing. Rita has an ambivalent relationship to her motherhood, and is quick to the attack. Alfred is the quintessential absent father, and it is only when it is too late that he decides to be the better father. He seems to take on the loss of Eyolf the hardest, though it is tempered with psychology far more selfish, remaining in the bath for days on end and pushing to the point of insanity as he converses with his absent son and stays adamant he will return. Chitham is an intriguing support as Asta, a figure that Rita sees as one of threat, and for Alfred represents a very complex desire.
Sam Snedden as Alfred is something of an audience favourite, like us he is an outsider looking into the family. He’s a genuine and bumbling peace maker, vainly trying to defuse the tensions between the other three. Snedden is a very effective comic relief – whenever the play is danger of getting too emotionally overwrought, Snedden is there with some finely judged black humour. The plays’ climax, in which three of the four actors appear naked, even descends into a wickedly funny farce in amongst some powerful revelations.
As we learn more about the characters, and the unsaid becomes said, we accept them.
There might even be a bit of ‘fear’ and ‘pity’ mixed into the final response, this is a tragedy after all. While it is an intimate drama (large bathroom excluded) involving four ‘ordinary’ people, it traverses the big themes – God, mortality, and especially love. While it is modern in its execution, its classical roots – both Ibsen and the wider tragic influences – remain firm.
Coming home, I was left moved, exhausted, and yet renewed by powerful storytelling, performances and theatre.
I was even tempted to take a long, hot bath, but thought the better of it.
The Only Child is presented by Silo Theatre and plays at the Herald Theatre until Saturday 17th September 2011.
More information at The Edge.