Some time ago, I pulled this quote from a longer article by John Lahr – The Illumination Business: why drama critics must look at and look after the theatre. I came across it again as I was reviewing another piece I’m working on. It continues to resonate for me, but the quote itself couldn’t have come at a better time as I sat down to record my response to Maxine Mellor’s play Trollop, the winner of the Premier’s Drama Award 2012-13 and receiving its premiere, world performance at Queensland Theatre Company.
Reviewing assumes that the plot is the play; criticism, on the other hand, knows that the plot is only part of a conversation that the playwright is having about a complex series of historical and psychological issues. The job of the critic is to join that conversation, to explore the play and link it to the world. The job of the reviewer is to link the play to the box office.
Mr Lahr is clearly not keen to be described as a ‘reviewer.’ I don’t particularly care one way or the other; a critic by any other name will smell as pungent. Anyway, I did rather like the bit that notes the critic’s job in joining in the conversation. I’ve always been more interested in conversations with playwrights than budget bottom lines and I agree that plots are not the play, which is just as well.
To focus on the plot of Ms Mellor’s play would be to do it a disservice. There’s little point attempting to frame and confine what looks and feels more like a confusing fever dream than a so-called ‘well-made play.’ This is inside-the-head-made-manifest theatre, a neo-expressionistic piece which deserves the freedom to lash out in its own sweet way – which it does – to mess with your head.
Ms Mellor writes beautifully and her play is brave, fascinating, and an ultimately shocking piece of theatre which melds form and content pretty much seamlessly. Trollop is meant to shock. Those who like their plot lines neat and ordered will probably be dissatisfied and even outraged by the play’s fracture of those expectations, but I suspect this is part of the whole point of the ‘conversation’ Ms Mellor is having. This is not a comfortable play designed to provide a cosy night in the theatre nor easy answers to the dilemmas it poses. It probes psychic fault lines and has wicked fun exposing them.
Trollop works if you give yourself over to the reality of hallucination, the loss of perspective and the waking horror of the truly traumatised. Indeed, the production has the look and the feel of a nightmare fairytale and depends enormously for its impact on the creation of this world which is largely realised by a new production model – new in its recognition at the top of the playbill – of the collaborative efforts of Co-director/Designers team: Wesley Enoch, Pete Foley, Ben Hughes and David Morton with Composer/Sound Designer Chris Perren.
A bit of context and a pinch of narrative: Clara (Amy Ingram) and Erik (Anthony Standish) are a couple living in a scrubbed white apartment – a stark box with fragile, transparent walls surrounded at the edge of the playing space by mud-encrusted detritus. The stage space (already ringing with metaphor) looks like a lab, hospital room, a way-station – homely domesticity it isn’t. It’s a refuge – asylum – but the design creates an uneasy juxtaposition which sets the stage literally for the playing out between past and present and the clash of interior and exterior worlds all of which fuel the play’s engine. Just as a side-note: the sight of the garbage there on the floor of the studio caused something of a shudder to those of us who remembered the reality of the 2011 floods; it was all too horribly real for comfort. But back to Erik the willing and Clara …
She is a refugee from the horrors of the outside world and her memories of some disaster which has clearly taken its toll on her. We are told she is a creative – she’s put together a book in the past – but she’s shocked into inertia – helpless, unwashed, unable to care for herself, dependent upon her partner Erik for emotional and physical sustenance. In short, she’s traumatised.
Clara is incapable of speech or action apart from watching endless documentaries which loop through disaster, violence and fantasy on the television screen. Sounds and flickering images spread across the entire set becoming a reality that absorbs and consumes her – beautiful visual and sound design here with water a recurring motif. Clara’s only contact with the outside world is via technology – she writes fake emails to Erik from the persona of ‘Sofie’ apparently a past lover of his and now living in Sweden. Her little cruelties towards Erik – naive, absurdly faithful, loving, but an equally troubled human being – make Clara unsympathetic but then his endless, childlike prattle is equally discomforting. This pairing, you just know, is designed to break down and soon. It’s no surprise then when, in from the storm raging outside, bursts Eugenie, the trickster figure and catalyst for the final breakdown. Lucy-Ann Langkilde‘s Eugenie is delightfully realised in a very impressive debut performance for QTC. With the coming of the outside world, Clara’s monster is awakened and the troll in her strikes back.
None of the figures in Trollop is particularly loveable but each is a complex creation and terrific challenge for the actors. The enigmatic Clara is played with the right dose of confident abandon by the wonderfully expressive Amy Ingram. Boyfriend Erik (Anthony Standish in another finely-observed although largely unsympathetic role) comes and goes on quests reminiscent of those cruel, pointless tasks which the Brothers Grimm were fond of setting their hapless lads. Just what is Clara doing in the back room with all those sticks and feathers and fur? Surely it cannot be another children’s pop-up book. No spoilers but what does emerge finally is nowhere near as horrific as it needs to be and I wonder whether such a literal creation can possibly compete with the movie in our minds.
Maxine Mellor’s play attempts to explore the horror associated with what’s called post-traumatic stress disorder. Much of the play captures this very well especially in the exchanges between Erik and Clara and Clara’s attempts to escape her waking nightmare. However, the coming of Eugenie and the sequence that follows is longer than it needs to be, and seems at times an add-on rather than germane to the play’s focus.
For most disaster survivors healing comes slowly if at all. With the psyche irreparably disturbed the future for the traumatised is what, at the end, is truly terrifying to consider.
The conversation should continue. You can do so on Facebook: Facebook.com/qldtheatreco or on Twitter @qldtheatreco and hashtag it #qtctrollop
TROLLOP by Maxine Mellor plays until 17th August. Details on QTC website.