To use their own words: Heartbeast is
a not-for-profit theatre organisation that offers artists the opportunity to investigate and explore their performance philosophy and skills of artistry through an aesthetic prism that meshes heightened theatricality with the organic performance of archetypal, contemporary, local and world stories.
It’s a mouthful, but I think Heartbeast’s performance of Beauty Is Difficult at the Trinity Church Hall was true to this manifesto.
Trinity Church Hall in the Valley is a beautiful, cavernous and engaging performance space, and punters were received with enthusiasm. A program thrust in hand, we were asked to “back a winner” by placing our name under the character that we thought was destined to die at the finish. I was interested; this sounded interactive. Fun! So I bought a delicious hot chocolate and settled in for a good one.
Earning my gold star as a theatre-goer, I’d investigated the premise of the show and was excited to meet its remarkable line-up of characters; Hedda Gabler (Sherri Smith), Emma Bovary (Karen Dinsdale), Anna Karenina (Anna O’Hara), Phedre (Adrienne Costello) and Danni (Judith Turnbull), based on the character of Mrs Danvers from Rebecca (1938). C’est formidable, I thought!
These women led a cast of eight actors that meet in a ballroom, somewhere in the after-life. Controlled by a puppet master, they use their beauty and feminine wiles to survive the strange experience (I did wonder how someone could die if they were already dead, but I let it go).
Michael Beh, artistic director of Heartbeast and director/creator/costume designer of Beauty is Difficult writes in his notes that his show does, “not tell the story of each of the original texts but dips into them like a stone skipping across the water, allowing the audience to barrack for their favourite femme fatale.”
Mr Beh sets out to achieve a great deal in his 75 minute work (no interval) and on reflection, I think this is the problem.
The program is epic; it does the usual things as well as: outline the central characters, reflect on the text, the rehearsal process, the symbolism of horses and tango within the piece, the bursts of French texts throughout and … various other things. Evidently the rehearsal process was lengthy,and actors were encouraged to improvise on the original material and collaboratively develop the final performance text. In theory it sounded doable, but the reality left me wondering about too many cooks.
Beauty is Difficult didn’t work; it tried to do too much, too hard, and (for me at least) missed the mark. I found myself wondering why on earth this was happening, where it was going, and what was the point of it all? (Not that there always has to be a point, but that’s another essay, perhaps).
The audience wasn’t given enough of the characters’ and their story to really connect with and commit to them. Snapshots in time can be difficult to process without a solid context. I don’t think punters should have to read the program pre-show to be able to appreciate the theatrical experience. It needed to be enjoyable and understandable without a written analysis.
The cast of eight were fully committed to their parts, and kudos to them for that, but there was a lot of “acting” going on, and plenty of upstaging. I must make an exception for Jason Ward Kennedy (Man 1), who was wonderfully natural, and engaged the audience without trying.
The cast made use of the whole space effectively, and the lighting design by Jason Harding was intriguing; however, with the smoke machines in full swing, it was difficult to see actors at the back of the hall. The sound design held the audience’s interest, using evocative music and effects that were well timed. The all-black costumes were beautiful and (along with the well-integrated and well-spoken bursts of French) were, for me, the highlight of the piece.
At the end of last Thursday night’s performance, ‘Hedda Gabler’ went down as the evening’s victim; evidently it’s different every night – not sure why. I never would’ve bet on the awe-inspiring Hedda being done in (I’d put my money on Karenina) but, alas, I was too busy trying to figure it all out to care.