Serial killers have often been a weird subject of fascination for me. I suppose with my mum being a trained psychologist it’s in my blood to want to understand how and why people think the way they do. But in Liz Hobart’s Lie With Me, the fact we’re asked to go beyond that and consider not only why serial killers do what they do, but the impact this (and the deserved media bashing they receive) has on their closest relatives and what forces go into the making of the ‘mother of a monster’, makes the entire concept even more thought-provoking. For a man whose name literally translates to deep thinker, it’s quite fitting I’m interested.
But we’ll deal with complexities later. On its face, the play takes inspiration from the life of US serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, the closeted homosexual whose necrophilia and obsession with biology brought about the deaths of 13 men in Milwaukee in the late 1970s-1980s. Whilst the audience never sees Sebastian Jenkins (the Dahmer equivalent), they gain an understanding of him through his mother Janice’s (Lyn Pierse) recounting and reliving of her life with him. Hobart’s script moves in a non-linear fashion that leans towards absurdism at points, blending scenes exploring Janice’s troubled family past with ones detailing the tumultuous internal politics of her housewife social group in flashbacks and moments of media-induced social hysteria to detail how Sebastian’s past actions affect his mother in the present. Switch Milwaukee for Newcastle and American stereotypes for Australian ones, and that’s the working idea. It’s awfully reminiscent of STC’s earlier show The Testament of Mary, if Jesus was replaced with Jeffrey Dahmer and Jerusalem with Newcastle.
That’s just the working idea, mind you.
When applied practically, it took some time to adjust to the constant movement between flashbacks and scenes set in the present. Whereas the flashbacks are mostly comedic and light-hearted, scenes in the present are morose or dramatic – the interplay between them takes time to sink in. Only when I realised how important the flashbacks were in setting up later-addressed plot points (such circularity being one of the play’s quiet strengths) did the flashbacks make structural sense. That being said, a better balance between comedic relief and moments of tension in Hobart’s script would have been more ideal. Laughing at ‘mum’ jokes after learning how Sebastian sexually interacts with his victims post-mortem is dead hard (morbid pun intended).
On a performance level, this issue of balance is also somewhat evident. In what seems to be the ‘in’ thing these days, we’ve got an all-woman cast and majority-women creative team (which, given the play’s subject matter, is fitting choice by director Warwick Doddrell). As referenced earlier, Robertson and Murray take on a flurry of roles. At some stages they are media professionals, at others Janice’s housewife friends, and (in the case of Robertson) even her own family. The lack of time they have to develop their characters in each of these contexts makes such performances sometimes shallow, particularly when at moments when I needed to figure out who they were playing. This is mostly the case with Murray – she just kind of hangs around, only really making the most of one of her roles (as a housewife) late in the performance but constantly plagued with an under-whelming physicality and stage presence elsewhere. Robertson experiences less of these issues (but still some) by virtue of the script’s emphasis on Janice’s weatherman husband Len, but even this performance lacks enough passion. We certainly get a sense of his toxically masculine character (which Robertson deserves attention for; how are women playing men so well these days?), but simply not enough – there’s a slight lack of aggression in him that is needed to frighten the audience like it hypothetically does his son. That being said, I enjoyed Pierse’s lead performance – realistic, reserved (bar one scene where she melodramatically defends her son’s actions and some minor physicality issues) and again morally flawed, she shines because she maintains one constant character, able to flesh it out non-verbally and really carry the play in moments of chorus or collective.
Whilst there were many moments of chorus work (what with a 3-woman cast), it is the more psychological I want to name-check as the play’s overall highlights – Production Designer Isabella Andronos and Sound Designer Ben Hinchley go above and beyond in their craft and make this show much of the good that it is at these points. Through the aid of a flickering yellow light and long white material, a rendition of Sebastian’s birth is presented mid-way into the show. As the light flickers, all of the women stichomythically chant lines from earlier in the play as Janice delivers on a table just off centre-stage, having this material drawn out of her. A soft but powerful music plays over this short scene. But it wasn’t this visual sight I was drawn to. It was the shadow made by the light on the set’s bare upstage wall – recreating the birth in an almost silhouette-like fashion. Two visuals to focus on, one horrifying birth of a killer. Brilliant. By the same virtue, Janice’s shock departure from the lives of her son and husband near the performance’s end, driving alone in her car shrieking ‘I’ve done it!’ as loud music plays. Joined by Robertson and Murray as voices either side of Pierse (miming this drive downstage centre) to turn this shriek into a crowded crescendo of confusion, elation and second-guessing, this progresses from comedy to drama incredibly well. We are left to question Janice’s selfish actions within this incredible, symbolic moment.
Ultimately, the Old 505 has again shown me why I love coming back to them. Lie With Me is a complex play, where every character and persona is as flawed as they are perfect. I loved the sound and production elements – Pierse’s performance almost as much. For the most part, I liked Hobart’s script. Whilst I found the play’s non-linear structure confusing at times, my eventual understanding of their importance to quickly-revisited plot points made me at least recognise that I needed to pay attention and deal with the poorly-timed jokes within them. And when I’m listening to characters I know, that’s easy. When I’m left to guess who is playing who until halfway through the scene, not so much. If you’ve got 90 minutes to kill (dear god please not literally), this is well worth your time.