Gloria review: Marta Dusseldorp shines in stage return (Griffin Theatre, Sydney)

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It’s been six years since actor Marta Dusseldorp last performed on stage. She’s been in hot demand as a TV actor over the last few years, with leading roles in A Place to Call Home, Janet King, Crownies and Jack Irish. In all of those shows she’s played tough, smart women who find themselves under immense pressure.

While those characters are able to sail through tough times relatively smoothly, the title character in Benedict Andrews’ sophomore play Gloria is struggling to keep a grip on the world around her as things twist and turn in a kaleidoscopic fashion.

Dusseldorp is astonishing as Gloria, a fading actor who is forced to dig into particularly dark territory for a new role. Gloria is playing a real woman who was kept and abused by her father — the “monster” — inside his basement for many years. But Gloria is finding it more difficult to immerse herself in the character than any other she’s played, and when she’s asked to visit the actual basement to film a documentary, things start unravelling.

While she lives many storeys above that basement in a beautiful, chic penthouse, she has a similar sense of being disconnected from the world and begins to see herself in the character, and vice versa.

Andrews’ 2012 debut as a playwright, Every Breath, was absolutely slaughtered by critics, and director Lee Lewis has said that getting this play up was a challenge. She approached other companies about co-productions, but none were interested.

It’s not difficult to see why: as strong and rich as the writing is, this is not an easy work. It’s multi-layered and constantly shifting. While the actors on stage retain the same character names throughout the play’s various sections, their role changes — so Jared (played by Meyne Wyatt) is Gloria’s teenage son in one scene, her co-star in another, and her husband in another.

It can be a little disorientating, but it’s a rewarding piece if you let go of the notion that you’ll be able to make sense of every moment.

Lewis’s production is strongly inventive, finding the richness and making sense of the play. It’s probably a little too big for the Griffin stage, but that’s what the play demands (and no other theatre company was gutsy enough to take it on).

There’s excellent work from lighting designer Luiz Pampolha and composer Steve Toulmin, who trace Gloria’s terror and increasing madness, and a particularly strong supporting performance from Chloe Bayliss as Maddie, stepping through the character’s various guises.

Lewis’s director’s note says that the play is not a portrait of an actor, but a portrait of Australia. I’m not sure that entirely holds weight — it is a very inward looking, introverted piece of theatre, expressed in a bold and extroverted fashion. There’s a revolution happening beneath Gloria’s protected penthouse apartment, and the world is falling apart, but we only glimpse that destruction through Gloria’s fractured lens.

What sets Gloria apart from other portraits of an actor’s psyche is that it dives headfirst into the meeting point between a person’s internal life and the world around them. It’s largely about identity and how that’s shaped, distorted and destroyed by the world in which we live.

But trying to nail down the essence of this work seems a bit pointless. It’s an impressionistic piece of drama; driven more by energy and an outpouring of ideas than any particular philosophy or narrative. It’s dense and often unforgiving, but constantly exciting and provoking.

And watching Dusseldorp blasting through an extraordinarily difficult role in such an intimate setting is both a thrill and a privilege.

Gloria is at Griffin’s SBW Stables Theatre until October 8.

Featured image: Chloe Bayliss and Marta Dusseldorp. Photo by Brett Boardman.

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