Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Ninety, Aug 27, 2008 ***1/2

by Joanna Murray-Smith, Melbourne Theatre Company
 Fairfax Studio, Vic Arts Centre, until October 4, 2008
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Stars: *** 1/2

There are tears and laughter in Joanna Murray-Smith’s play, Ninety. You might need to sneakily dab your eyes with a tissue in the final blackout. When William (Kim Gyngell) and Isabel (Melinda Butel), a divorced couple, meet for the last time before William flies off to Paris to marry a young German actress, their separated “Now” collides with their volatile “Then”.

William grants Isabel’s request for ninety minutes of his time. What she wants is not immediately evident. Perhaps it is to remind him of the exceptional love they had, to rekindle the passion, to stop him marrying the German bimbo - or is it to remind him of the unbearable, unspoken grief that tore them apart and forced him to leave?

Murray-Smith writes plenty of whip-smart dialogue for these two accomplished actors, employing her signature interrupted, clipped dialogue and myriad allusions to literature, politics and popular culture.

The characters are middle-class, privileged artists. She is an art conservator restoring a 16th century Flemish painting that is, rather too obviously, of a married couple. He is a “shallow and vain actor” who recently won a Golden Globe. They are articulate and almost too clever with words as they snipe and taunt each other.

Simon Phillips casts not glamorous actors, but two idiosyncratic and insightful performers who penetrate both the ordinary and extraordinary in this broken relationship. Gyngell is compelling as William, making this self-centred, ambitious man sympathetic and funny. His rattling recollection of being a sleep-deprived dad wrangling a vomiting, crying baby is hilarious. Later, he touches our hearts with his grief-wracked sobs.

Butel as Isabel is a fiery siren in tracky-dacks. She challenges and confronts William, making no obvious effort to charm or seduce him but she reels him in with her wily and manipulative storytelling.

The present bleeds into the past as they reminisce about their past love. If we were wondering why this seemingly mismatched and combative couple were ever together, their memories explain it. He was her Drama lecturer and she his annoying, show-off student who seduced him shamelessly. Their connection was playful, wild and sensual but their love was shattered by grief.

Phillips sustains a cantering pace without losing the rhythm. With the slowly revolving set (Andrew Bellchambers) Phillips allows us to view the couple from all sides, both literally and metaphorically. Ninety taps into all our fears and pain about losing love.

By Kate Herbert

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