Braving the icy lens

29 July 2020

It’s a tough transition from stage to screen concludes David Zampatti, in his review of the last two instalments of Black Swan State Theatre’s “Unsung Heroes”.

‘Unsung Heroes’, Week 2, Black Swan State Theatre Company ·
Streaming until 3 August 2020 ·

Before we dive into the last two of Black Swan State Theatre Company’s “Unsung Heroes”, the dramatic monologues presented digitally instead of in the originally-scheduled stage season, I’d like to return to the BBC series that defines their genre, Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads (mentioned in last week’s review).

Screened in 1988 and 1998 and performed by the likes of Maggie Smith and Eileen Atkins, the monologues in Talking Heads are masterclasses in the actor’s craft. Their particular genius lies in bridging the chasm between the heat of the stage and the chill of the screen, between the wide open arms of a live audience and the probing gaze of a camera.

Last month the BBC released a new series of Talking Heads with ten of the original monologues and two new pieces recently written by Bennett, performed by actors such as Sarah Lancashire, Imelda Staunton, Jodie Comer, Martin Freeman and Tamsin Greig, all filmed during, and motivated by, the COVID-19 lockdown.

Which makes them exact contemporaries, and blood relatives, of Unsung Heroes.

What we learn from Talking Heads is the huge challenge of playing to a camera, and the discipline it requires of writer, director and actor. It’s especially difficult when all these creatives were originally working for a different audience; one that is a sweep of faces and minds across which the actor can work physically, one that returns its emotions, its laughter, sadness, surprise and satisfaction, to the performer.

Instead you have an icy lens, unmoved by anything, uninterested in everything. So close it can see the pores of the actor’s skin, so ruthless it hears every habit of inflection, detects every flaw.  And yet, in a monologue, it cannot be bypassed, and must not be ignored. The actor must hold its gaze, unwavering, because it is their audience, singular, complete and entire.

The success of each of the five pieces in Unsung Heroes in this altered medium, then, depends on how well they’ve adapted to this dispassionate audience of one, for which they were never intended.

And the outcome is mixed.

The last two pieces in the series are Barbara Hostalek’s Own Way, the story of anti-domestic violence campaigner Georgia Prideaux, directed by Joe Paradise Lui and performed by Jo Morris, and Lesson in the Art of Butterfly by Hellie Turner, the story of euthanasia advocate Dr Alida Lancee, played by Alison van Reeken and directed by Emily McLean.

I have no doubt that both would be powerful experiences on the stage, in particular the harrowing story of Prideaux’s life-and-death struggle to survive the deranged attacks of her former husband and subsequent campaign to challenge and change the way the legal system dealt with domestic violence and the right of its victims to be heard.

Morris is a fine actor, and is as striking and convincing as always, but this felt like a stage performance filmed, rather than one in sympathy with its medium. She was more often than not talking past the camera rather than at it, leaving the most elemental question of the dramatic monologue hanging uncomfortably: Who is she talking to?

Actor Jo Morris on the set of 'Own Way'. She is looking off camera and her face appears anxious or upset. Her hands are held tensely, as though holding a distressing thought. She wears a brown dressing gown. The background is dark, save for a swathe of deep blue light that illuminates wallpaper.
Jo Morris on the set of ‘Own Way’. Photo: Philip Gostelow.

Lesson in the Art of Butterfly doesn’t suffer from this dissociation, and that makes it the most successful of all five pieces in the “Unsung Heroes” series.

The exemplary van Reeken displays all her art and craft in this gentle, liberating and generous story of Dr Lancee’s journey to an understanding of the processes of the end of life: “people don’t fear death, they fear dying”, and how medical practitioners, family and friends, and others can participate in these processes and support those going through them.

Butterfly doesn’t shy away from the sadness and horror of some deaths, nor does it sidestep the legal and moral issues Dr Lancee confronted. But Turner’s skillful script – surprisingly humorous at times and perfectly modulated throughout – and McLean and van Reeken’s consistent positioning of their character in the story, makes for an insightful and entertaining half hour’s viewing.

And there’s no doubt who van Reeken/Lancee is talking to – it’s directly to us, straight through the camera lens – throughout.

Congratulations to Black Swan, Joe Lui and Emily McLean, and all the writers and performers of these shows; my observations are not criticisms, and each one of these pieces well deserves to come home to the theatre where they, and we, belong.

Let’s hope that will be soon.

– David Zampatti

Lesson in the Art of Butterfly opens Wednesday 29 July 2020 at 7:30pm
Own Way opens Thursday 30 July at 7:30pm
Registered attendees will be able to view all performances on demand until 3 August 2020

Pictured top is Alison van Reeken on the set of ‘Art of Butterfly’. Photo: Philip Gostelow

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Author —
David Zampatti

David Zampatti has been a student politician, a band manager, the Freo Dockers’ events guy, a bar owner in California, The West Australian’s theatre critic and lots of other crazy stuff. He goes to every show he’s reviewing with the confident expectation it will be the best thing he’s ever seen.

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