Everyone is always keen to know when it comes to Simon Stone…did she hate it, like it or love it? I’m in the middle on this one. In fact, I really liked it and generally give it the thumbs up but I do have some problems with it (of course).
I’d like to firstly give a note to STC: enough with the European-inspired plays looking at middle-aged women, lonely and repressed, spiralling on the path to a nervous breakdown. I mean really, enough. I’m starting to think that if I’m fairly well-balanced, I’m missing out on something.
‘Face to Face’, adapted from Ingmar Bergman by Stone and Andrew Upton, is the story of Jenny (Kerry Fox), a psychiatrist whose life soon manifests into her own breakdown as she is forced to deal with her issues- mainly towards her absent husband, her maligned dead father and the trauma of a recent attack.
Some of the content of ‘Face to Face’ is incredibly sexist and it prompts me to quickly go through a dumbed down version or backlog of some of Stone’s work that I’ve seen.
Baal: Man who seduces and then kills women when he wants out of the relationship.
Thyestes: Men who kill and abuse women to seek revenge and assert power.
The Promise: Woman who has to make a choice between two men and picks to stay with the man she doesn’t love out of duty.
Strange Interlude: Woman who chooses to marry a man she doesn’t love to get over the death of a man she did love and then falls in love with another man that she can’t have until he wants her and thus she no longer wants him, eventually loving no-one but her child.
The Wild Duck: Man leaves wife because she ‘trapped’ him into marriage as she was carrying another man’s baby he believed was his. Child (girl) then commits suicide because her ‘father’ has rejected her.
Oh look…I could twist it anyway I like to prove a point I suppose. Certainly not all works are violent towards women but the essence of it is there. Women, especially strong, intelligent women, are abandoned by men and only succeed in relationships when they fulfil the duty of carer and not lover, as voiced in the play by Wendy Hughes’ character, Aunt, when she talks about finally being happy in her relationship now her husband has lost his mind and needs full-time care.
And if you don’t live that role? Cue mental institution.
I will say, I’m sure not all of Stone’s work falls into this theme but I was interested to see how much of his work does seem to fit. Obviously he didn’t write (or re-write) them all but it seems to me he is attracted to this kind of material. Or have I only just naively been enlightened to the fact that strong, independent women on stage must go mad or die because women are their best selves when they suppress their own identity to fulfil a subservient role in the duty or dedication and care of others? Or, worse still, did I miss the memo in contemporary society that this is not just art and literature but it is, in fact, modern life? Oh dear. No wonder people hate me. I absolutely don’t belong. Warning: assertive woman on the loose. Call the psych ward. Note to self, throw out your copy of ‘Why Men Love Bitches’. It’s a lie.
I suppose this idea was crystallised for me in the rape scene when Jenny, in rushing to the aid of her patient Maria (Anna Martin), Jenny is attacked in the street and is the victim of an attempted rape. The rape is abandoned as she is “dry and useless”. It is one of those moments of incredible humiliation that Stone crafts so well, his power play of the theatre. So when Jenny later remarks to Tomas (Mitchell Butel) that she wanted the attacker to rape her, she longed for him, well…that just sat in my gut and it was very hard to reconcile. Maybe because I’m a woman I view these things from a very different perspective, even on stage, and it doubles the humiliation for the character- the powerless of the rape and then being abandoned by him. What message are we delivering or am I just being overly sensitive to it?
Maybe it was the undertones of the material that characters like Tomas confess, even in their attempted seduction of Jenny, that his only real love was a man (the implication being that women are the second prize).
Oh- enough with the content and let me talk about why I pushed that slightly aside and actually enjoyed the show. This show is an ensemble triumph and Kerry Fox is outstanding as Jenny. When she confesses her memories of her father, through her wails and tears, I was genuinely moved. Fox brings an integrity to this role and plays it with such truth in this fragmented stylistic play.
The cast, in a variety of roles, swim in and out of the dreamlike vignettes, and capture these moments with sophisticated intentions and context. Butel ( a firm favourite since ‘Strange Interlude’) has such a beautiful manipulation of skill and focus and his conviction in every word and action is evident; John Gaden, Hughes, Dylan Young- all the cast are a strength in Stone’s direction.
So let me compliment Stone on his control of style in ‘Face to Face’. I enjoyed the dream weave of scenes, changes in locations, leaps in narrative that then become heightened in the second half when the design becomes static but time and characters move with fluidity in and out of the space. It’s clever staging and so kudos to set and lighting designer Nick Schlieper for the incredible lowering of the hospital set (yes, in a glass box…well….it’s part of the territory so why fight it). Its ability to weave scenes through the entrances and exits and convey all the shifts and dream sequences with such clarity gave Stone a terrific template in which to bring his vision to life.
I enjoyed this show and would recommend it. But be warned all my middle-aged female friends, you will writhe in slight discomfort in some of the content and I’m not sure it was all consciously written that way. However, the stylistic choices and Stone’s direction work well, the design and use of the stage I thought were completely appropriate and used thoughtfully (unless you hate the movement of actors and set pieces during scenes) and the acting first class.
And if you take the Benedict Andrews’ bingo card, it even works here for his protégé Stone.
Two directors. One card.