STC’s ‘THE SPLINTER’ directed by Sarah Goodes

‘The Splinter’ is a commissioned work, written by Hilary Bell and one of the few local original works staged at STC this year. Directed by Sarah Goodes and acted by two skilled actors (a duo of Thomson’s- Erik and Helen) ‘The Splinter’ is a cross between a fractured fairy tale, gothic horror, heightened realism and visual fantasy.
‘The Splinter’ takes the idea of the lost child but unlike other dramas of this nature, like Matt Cameron’s ‘Ruby Moon’, or Bryony Lavery’s ‘Frozen’, the child (Laura) returns, nine months later, mute, fractured, mysterious. The play then delves into the dark psychological consequences of the gap in time, the hopes combined with guilt and fear and the effect of the ‘ghost’ child on her parents’ marriage and their relationship with her. All of this is conveyed through the surrealist theatricality of the stage- technical and design shadows of disturbing doubt and a sparse script that leans towards the troubled recesses of the mind more than large relational exchanges. And that it is going to be a huge challenge for any collective- to capture what is between and inside the lines to fully convey the complexities of the volatility of clawing at the hope of happiness and normality, to find moments of truth inside fantasy, belief and theatricality side by side whilst moving from a physical into a mental absence of reality.
Conceptually, this play is interesting. But the production, I think, is not completely realised. I’ve dubbed it interesting boring. I really like the staging. I’m really appreciative of the skill of the actors, the writing, the puppeteers, the design, the light and soundscapes, even the direction. It’s just that there’s very little tension on stage and the chemistry between Helen Thomson and Erik Thomson is not there. And that makes me feel like they’re not completely inside the beats and words of the script. Yet, I am big fans of both of them as performers. I wonder though whether the combination just didn’t come to fruition on stage. As a result, there’s a lack of belief in their relationship and their feelings towards Laura and so the stakes are missing. Do I care what happens to the child in the end? Not so much. Am I meant to? I think I am somewhat. I’m expected to sit outside realism and in this heightened world but I still have to be invested in the parents’ emotive responses to what they perceive as the dangers of psychological splintering in order to engage in the ramifications and consequences of drowning in the darkness of fear and terror, especially as it moves more into fantasy, it needs to take me inside at the start before separating me from this world by the end.
So before people start telling me I don’t understand theatre and that this play is not ‘realism’ and therefore affords a different approach, thank you. I do understand. I’m not after catharsis, a purging of emotion. I know the play works on expressing an idea using the elements of the stage. But part of that is a reference to every parent’s nightmare- the loss of a child, the loss of naivety in regards to the safety of our own neighbourhood and the fear that things will never be the same. Inside that lies moments of truth, in marriage, relief, affection, doubt. Time has been erased, life stood still for a fraction of time but how does it now continue? These parents are still grieving, even though their child is back. There is still loss, anger, denial, bargaining. And conveying that with some homage to belief is what drives a sense of dramatic tension then heightened by the visual mise-en-scene. If the relationship between them doesn’t quite ring true, the journey is all about the theatricality and not the players in it. These are not archetypes- they are people on the edge of a breakdown. In fact, they dance around it only briefly before diving head first into it. And that requires moments of intense connection with the emotion and with each other.
OK- so, aside from a lack of chemistry and tension (and thus why parts of it felt to me it was boring), here are some the elements of the staging that tempered that and made for an interesting viewing of techniques:
Most obviously, the puppetry. Julia Ohannessian and Kate Worsley, under the direction of Alice Osbourne create some powerful images of the porcelain child, an image of the fragility of the girl now in the home as opposed to the lively adventurous girl who once lived there. The scenes of the tea party, the hair brushing- all add to this eerie affect.
Renee Mulder’s sparse set to compliment the text and its style is effective in adding to the atmosphere of this gothic inspired narrative. I love the curtains, blowing in the wind- as if a cyclone could tear down this home at anytime. This is further enhanced in Damien Cooper’s lighting, keeping the stage in a constant feeling of dusk- symbolic of the family’s state on the edge of paralysing darkness. Then throw in the composition of Emily Maguire and Steve Francis’ sound design and you have a technical proficient ability to create a world reminiscent of the original inspiration for the script, Henry James’ ‘Turn of the Screw’.
There are so many visually stunning aspects to ‘The Splinter’ that for that alone, you will engage in the technical creation of Bell’s script. Just be aware, if you are wondering why it didn’t resonate more with you when there were so many interesting things about it, I’m guessing it’s the patchy chemistry and tension.
But go and see it and decide for yourself. It may just have been the show I saw. You be the judge.

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3 comments

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Alex September 9, 2012 at 12:57 pm

I completely agree. The visual atmosphere was so inspired that the production is worth seeing and appreciating uniquely on those grounds. I was disappointed with the acting, and I found that the puppet was far more fascinating to watch than the parents ever were. All in all, however, this was a very entertaining production – certainly more than Face to Face.

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James Knox September 9, 2012 at 2:00 pm

HI Jane, I was waiting for this review. I also agree that one of the main problems was the acting.

When Erik Thomson appears, I never believed that this was a father who had lost his child and got her back. Emotionally, the mixture of relief/disbelief/exasperation etc etc just wasn't there. The actors were "saying the words" but I found the emotions somewhat lacking.

I wished it was more spooky but that's probably difficult to achieve on stage as opposed to film I suppose. Having said that, I did see a show off-Broadway two years ago that scared the daylights out of me.

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Anonymous December 8, 2012 at 4:19 am

Thank you for this complete dissection it was extremely useful and interesting to read. The only point I would disagree on is the chemistry between the actors. Though the audience wasn't paralyzed by the electricity between them and there could have been more I still believe there was something. Friends who saw the play at the opening of the season were much harsher than you but I went at the end and I believe that they're relationship was believable. As with many new plays it seemed that they needed the extra time to work there way into the characters. Kudos to them both and especially the puppeteers.

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