I’m sure Nicki Bloom, like that other playwrighting wunderkind Polly Stenham (That Face), is tired of hearing how marvellous it must be to write so well at such a young age. We tend not to gush quite so much over absurdly talented young musicians and sports stars but, somehow when it comes to writing plays, you’re not supposed to hit all the marks until you’re much older. Just why you can’t be as prodigiously clever with imagination and words as you can with bat, ball or musical notes certainly escapes me.
Having got that off my chest, I have to say that Nicki Bloom’s first play Tender, currently playing at !Metro Arts for the Independents 2010 season really does demonstrate an impressive mastery of dialogue (I understand she also writes poetry) and, with this work at least, an equally striking command of dramatic form – not bad for someone aged 22 when she wrote it, had it performed by Belvoir Street’s B-Sharp and then Hothouse Theatre (Albury-Wodonga) and back to Griffin in Sydney.
Tender is a splendid play, its narrative composed around the kind of roles actors die for. I’m not at all surprised that Andrea Moor knew after a first reading that this was a play she simply had to direct. She does so with a very sure hand and an understanding of what drives the work – an examination of how we behave when love takes hold.
Tender‘s mosaic plot creates an episodic identikit of character and relationships, at the same time piecing together a narrative composed of half-remembered fragments. They surround a mysterious event that has resulted in the disappearance and, presumably, the death of Michael (Peter Cook) during a walk late one night with wife Sarah in an inner city park. Sarah (Kathryn Marquet) is suffering from post-traumatic stress and has no recollection of what happened; she remembers the translucence of the light, the foliage in the gardens, and is tormented by re-living simultaneously the past and the immediacy – in her mind at least – of Michael’s presence.
Michael’s father Patrick (Peter Knapman) is himself trapped in a no-man’s land of his own grief, caught between a natural compassion for his daughter in law, and the hatred of his wife Yvonne who lashes out at him and the world, blaming Sarah for the death of a son she adored. Sarah in turn is helpless, drifting in and out of the past and the present. Tender’s narrative works on the audience’s imagination: what terrible thing happened that night? As a potent meditation on the nature of love and loving, the play does not supply the answer but, rather, examines the equally terrible fallout on those left behind.
The production has a very contemporary feel to it. Moor – a self-declared minimalist – has stripped away everything unnecessary to give the stage to Bloom’s text and the actors’ interpretation. Ross Wallace provides the visual world of Tender. Particularly compelling is his videoscape of images – all moody and impressionistic – projected on to a floor to ceiling screen of strips of material; actors come and go through it and down a trapdoor in the stage. Jason Glenwright’s lighting and Phil Hagstrom’s audio moodscape-soundtrack also work wonderfully well. It’s a stylish production and, really, the Sue Benner hasn’t looked or sounded as good in the design stakes for ages.
Tender is not a play that you can pigeonhole stylistically, if that’s your thing. It’s actually a much tougher work for actors to handle than a piece of straightforward psychological realism. Having said that, the performances are uniformly excellent. The non-linear plot is handled with consummate ease by director and cast. Bloom’s heightened dialogue with its truncated phrasing and choppy cadences can feel a bit contrived, and let it be said, takes a bit of getting used to; when you do, it’s heart-grabbing stuff – like good poetry, the emotions lie very close to the surface. Marquet and Cook were not quite as on top of these elusive rhythms in their first scene as they will be as the season runs, but theirs is a fine realisation of the tender, beautifully written and utterly believable relationship between Michael and Sarah. Can I just say that Kathryn Marquet gets better and better with every performance. Andrea Moor and Peter Knapman as Michael’s parents are equally assured in their roles; it’s a terrific piece of ensemble work.
I hope Tender gets the full houses it deserves for the season. This is quality theatre. See it.
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- Clearly and simply: Andrea Moor actor, director, teacher (actorsgreenroom.net)