Crackling with all sorts of electricity

29 October 2018

Review: Black Swan State Theatre Company, In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play ·
Heath Ledger Theatre, State Theatre Centre of WA, October 24 ·
Review by Xan Ashbury ·

OMG …Yes! This play hits the spot. It makes me shudder at how clueless we humans were, for so long, about women, intimacy and pleasure. It makes me groan at gender, class and racial prejudice in the Victorian era. It makes me gasp at the ridiculous number of layers under those beautiful 1890s gowns. And yes, there is a happy ending.

Written by Sarah Ruhl, the play ran on Broadway in 2009/10 and was nominated for three Tony Awards. Under Jeffrey Jay Fowler’s inspired direction, it skirts effortlessly between drama and farce. Its nuanced portrayal of loneliness and longing; desire, disappointment and disconnection touches us, deeply.

Rebecca Davis is thrilling to watch as Catherine Givings, the charming and spirited but long-suffering wife of Dr Givings (Stuart Halusz). The comically clinical doctor has pioneered an extraordinary new device – the vibrator – for treating “hysteria”. While his invention relieves and invigorates his loyal patients, his patronising and insensitive nature drives his wife to despair.

A Victorian woman lies on the bed. grasping the hand of a nurse while a doctor reaches up between her legs, his arm covered by a sheet. Her head is arched back and her mouth is open as though she is crying out.
Sabrina’s first ‘treatment’. Pictured are Jo Morris as Sabrina Daldry, Alison van Reeken As Annie and Stuart Halusz as Dr Givings. Photo: Philip Gostelow

Jo Morris is wonderful as the doctor’s new patient Sabrina Daldry. During their initial consultation, Mr Daldry (Kingsley Judd) speaks for her, describing how the rest cure had failed to cure all the weeping. Sabrina refers to her obsession with the green curtains and old ghosts in the dark. (The Yellow Wallpaper, anyone?)

Her first “treatment” had the audience in paroxysms of mirth. Sabrina grips the bed and arches neck back, while the good doctor checks his stop watch and chats about the weather. “Do you feel any calmer?” he inquires when it’s all over, before explaining about “pent up emotions in the womb”.

Her daily visits grow ever more interesting, especially after the electricity fails and the doctor’s assistant, Annie (Alison Van Reeken), administers “manual treatment” instead. And the plot thickens when Catherine’s curiosity is piqued by the evocative sounds coming from her husband’s operating theatre, the next room to her comfortable but lonely sitting room.

Alicia Clements’ set and costume design are key to play’s success. Through the large aperture that only the audience is privy to, we see the extraordinary and eccentric events play out above and behind the sterile sitting room.

Three women talking animatedly.
Tariro Mavondo shines in her Black Swan debut. Here she is centre, between Rebecca Davis (L),  and Jo Morris (R). Photo: Philip Gostelow.

Tom Stokes is a sparkling presence as Leo Irving, an artist crippled with grief after the end of a relationship. Dr Givings treats him for a rare case of “male hysteria”, unleashing “the most wild creative energies”.

Tariro Mavondo shines as Catherine’s wet nurse, Elizabeth, in her debut with Black Swan. Because of her race and class, Elizabeth is derided and exploited – and her grief for her deceased son callously overlooked. When she finally has opportunity to speak frankly to Catherine, I was awash with relief. It is a powerful speech, beautifully delivered.

The vibrator, used in the play as a device to explore the pain caused by repression, may be the play’s centrepiece. But for me, the fireworks came in the frisson between Annie and Sabrina sharing a piano stool, and in Leo capturing the electricity that flows between a woman and a baby at her breast. And the final, climactic scene, set in a garden as the snow falls, is nothing short of stunning.

In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play plays the State Theatre until November 4.

Pictured top are Jo Morris as Sabrina Daldry and Stuart Halusz as Dr Givings. Photo Philip Gostelow.

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Author —
Xan Ashbury

Xan Ashbury is a teacher who spent a decade writing for newspapers and magazines in Australia and the UK. She won the Shorelines Writing for Performance Prize in 2014-17. Her favourite piece of playground equipment is the flying fox.

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