Right Now theatre review (Red Stitch, Melbourne)

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SPOILERS AHEAD!

Either something bad has happened or is going to happen in Right Now – a clumsily told absurdist farce-cum-psychological thriller by French-Canadian Catherine-Anne Toupin – about a young mother suffering either a breakdown, overbearing neighbours, or a mixture of both. Alice (Christina O’Neill) and Ben (Dushan Philips) have been living in an apartment for six months. Their baby keeps crying from the off-stage bedroom  and despite their better judgement, they’ve accidentally invited the neighbours across the hall for drinks.

It’s a comfortable, if impersonal apartment and the intrusion of the comparably personable neighbours upsets the order of both. Right here is the lounge room and kitchen of apartment 23a, and while it’s not exactly clear where anything else is, if the title is to be believed we can at least ascertain that it is all happening right now. And judging by the mood, we can also be certain that right now something sinister is going to happen.

The play is relatively new, only a decade old, and at its core is a woman – Alice – who seems to be suffering from post-partum depression, or from the loss of a child, or maybe something even more serious. The script seems heavily in debt to existing work. There’s a touch of Pinter, perhaps The Birthday Party and The Lover, Ionesco’s The Bald Primadonna, Durang’s Baby with the Bathwater, and it has been compared more than once to newcomer Zellers’s The Father (recently seen at the MTC).

The playwright has herself commented that she believes the play has a very dark British comedy feel to it, while various British audiences have commented that it’s very French. And while it is hardly suffering by any of these myriad comparisons, there’s a particularly dreadful irony in watching a contemporary play titled Right Now that looks and sounds as though it was written as much as half a century ago.

Right Now presents a slice of life much like one of our own, perhaps colder and stranger, and we’re to believe that danger comes from where we least expect it. Emilie Barrie’s dark set of mostly shades of grey which with lighting designer Richard Vabre’s plunging blackouts and sound designer Daniel Nixon’s between-scenes audio hits combine for an effect that’s heavy handed and depressing.*

The play presents an ordinary, tiring existence of domestic urban life; of morning coffees, of avoiding strangers in the hall, of crying babies. Then it asks: what if instead of containing the anxiety of motherhood, that anxiety became your reality?

Quite a premise, but there’s not a huge amount to disrupt it given the predictable, if minor key tone of the mundane dramatics of the play’s opening. For Alice, the emotionally effected and nervous stay at home mum played without dynamism by O’Neill, her world seems to exist of a loop of her husband leaving and coming home from work – the cries of the baby interrupting what intimacy they share, and her husband reminding her they’d agreed that she wouldn’t go and check on it.

The work – in this English language translation by Chris Campbell – has been terribly well received in previous productions, and while it is director Katy Maudlin’s directing debut for Red Stitch Actors Theatre, the problems are much deeper than our debutante, or indeed the budgetary constraints of a small theatre. Maudlin’s best successes in the work come from bold still images, and the mixture of the earnest and the quirky – a sort of Wes Anderson for the stage.

But the half-baked and unsatisfactory psychological thriller that is a fair bulk of the play, underscored by the occasional playing of a recorded sound of a baby crying, pulls the show in two directions. Victor Shklovsky once suggested good art makes the ‘stone stony’. Here we are not only aware that the stone is a not a real stone, but asked to invest in finding out if it is in fact another kind of stone.

Alice, it emerges, rarely leaves the house. As her anxiety threatens to build, it becomes clear that her child is at its root. She and her partner Ben keep an insular life;, they’ve never met the neighbours, they’ve never wanted to, and they don’t appear to have any other friends. The only company is a plush toy that squeaks when accidentally trodden upon.

The Sartrean ‘Hell is other people’/’No Exit moment comes about when the trio from over the hall, the penetrating Juliette (Olga Makeeva), her renowned writer husband Gilles (Joe Petruzzi), and their adult son Francois (Mark Wilson), come around for the Friday night drinks. Unexpected common ground is found, white wine drunk, and some peculiar behaviour revealed by all. There are several moments of banal titillation and domestic drama topped off by a scene split between kitchen and lounge as simultaneous action peaks in both. In one location a tearful breakdown. An adulterous fling in the other. Meanwhile, for reasons not entirely clear, Francois does cartwheels.

Throughout the play there are times when the action drags, is gauche or awkward. In fairness, a group of characters poised around a coffee table, wine glasses half-raised, is tired at worst and at best is not an intrinsically dramatic image. Of course a play about a young mother, or about motherhood at all, has more to say than the vehicle of drawing room chatter, and the claustrophobic setting lends itself to share the particular fears and anxieties that may accompany it.

Unfortunately, like an M. Night Shamalan film (if not as predictable in narrative or form) Right Now is guilty – when not being obtuse or coquettish – of hanging the metaphoric lamp on its themes and plot twists. Two plot twists, (which I will be SPOILING HERE, so if you haven’t seen the play perhaps skip this and the next paragraph), let the play down. The first, revealed a fair way into the play – that the child crying is already dead and exists purely in the mother’s mind – was obvious enough to pick from the start. I didn’t mind this however; a certain ambiguity means if you do happen upon this thought before it’s revealed it doesn’t really detract from the story. But you’ll find you’re watching with a certain level of dramatic irony if you do, and this doesn’t make relating to Alice any easier.

The second plot twist (again, SPOILER) is nigh on criminal, and for full effect relies on the first plot twist having been sold effectively. In the dying moments of the play it’s revealed by her new husband Francois (after a period of ever increasingly absurd creeping-cum-gaslighting by the family over the hall) that almost none of the initial parts of the play were real and that he’s been her husband all along. To top it off,  he brings in her child who we discover is alive and well and has been the whole time. This plot twist is generally known as the ‘and it was all a dream’ ending and it didn’t exactly elicit a surprised gasp from me so much as a sigh. Even in a world where I would accept an ‘and it was all a dream’ ending, I’d want the plot of the dream reality to be fully resolved (The Wizard of Oz for example). Instead, Alice is left married to a man who we spent much of the play horrified by.

For a play whose main action involves the take over of Alice’s apartment/life/marriage, Right Now lacks the genuine threat of Frisch’s 1958 play The Arsonists / The Fire Raisers. It is not sufficiently clear about motherhood to justify comparing it on those terms.

Most of the characters seem unjustified in their advancements. Francois never becomes a better, or even equal man to husband Ben. Ben’s laughably easy acceptance to moving in with the Gauche family is never explained. Juliette’s character at one point asks to look at Alice’s hand and studies it, and when asked if she can read palms, says no, yet repeats the act later on husband Ben. A book signed by Gilles and never checked by Alice would be at least one small way she could discover some truth to her reality.

The conclusion of the play stretches the limits of what might be considered absurdity and what might be considered rushed choices by the writer. The darkness behind the door of 23b across the hall seems a microcosm of the many unanswered questions the play seeks to ask.

From the cast – and despite the problems I’ve raised – Markeeva’s work throughout the play is a stand out. She’s perfect as the audacious yet deferent matriarch, and so clearly the beneficiary of her years of experience of playing the intimate Red Stitch space.

Wilson and Petruzzi are a touch askew. Both are virtuosic performers but here Wilson’s absurdity runs too wild, and at times Petruzzi seemed to be quite absent. We are reminded of Wilson’s capabilities of control when, as the new husband, he delivers a cool ‘I think I’ll just read a book’ to a confused Alice. It could be a throw away line but in Wilson’s hands it’s as crushing as the text allows. Conversely, we often forget Petruzzi is even on stage. Dushan as Ben is stronger than his counterpart though with less to do, and ultimately unbelievable when the play turns. Though, as I’ve said this is also the product of a script asking for too much.

*As a side note I’d love it if someone could explain why it’s so very popular in Melbourne independent theatre at the moment, particularly the staging of realist plays – to use this combination of hard blackouts and thudding artificial sound effect hits between scenes. Eg. Right Now (Red Stitch), FIERCE (Theatre Works), Looking Glass (fortyfivedownstairs). It’s an unfortunate choice, not just the use of unchallenged realism, but the use and subsequent failure of theatrical blackouts and sound effects to ever actually black out or overwhelm a space. I don’t want to watch actors creeping about in near darkness or pretending they’re not moving furniture or props, and I can’t understand what brings a director to want it. The failure of the technique reveals the enormous gulf between the execution and freedoms that film and television provide compared to theatre when tackling the aesthetic.

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Right Now is at Red Stitch Actors Theatre until May 20

Main image: Dushan Philips, Christina O’Neill, Olga Makeeva, Joe Petruzzi, Mark Wilson in Right Now. Photo by Jodie Hutchinson

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