Playwright Jen Silverman was inspired by Charlotte Bronte’s letters to write The Moors as it struck her that this bleak and merciless place was almost a character in itself to the inhabitants of the area – and indeed it allowed people, in particular women, to carve out a place for themselves away from the constraints of society. It is the kind of play that allows for bold artistic interpretation and creative touches and it, strangely perhaps, seems exactly right to stage such a vast barren land piece in the intimate claustrophobic stage at Red Stitch. The plotline, without giving too much away, focuses on two mid 19th century spinster sisters straight out of a plot perhaps from a gothic Bronte or DuMaurier novel but this will not run the classic course of events and there are quite a few surprises and twists in store. Brittle Agatha (NIDA graduate Alex Aldrich who was last seen on the Red Stitch stage in 2014’s Eurydice) and dreamy Hudley (guest actor Anna McCarthy) attempt to cope in their own way with the loneliness of the Moors. Both siblings boss around their beleaguered scullery maid Majory (or is that Mallory!) played by Graduate ensemble member Grace Lowry, when into their lives arrives governess Emilie (Zoe Boesen, previously seen in Red Stitch’s 2011 hit My Romantic History) to tutor an unseen child at the request of the brother Branwell, who almost transpires to replicate the ‘madwoman’ in the attic subplot of Jane Eyre. Parallel to this story runs the quirky courtship of the forlorn family dog Mastiff (Dion Mills) and a wounded Moorhen (Olga Makeeva). How this stranger’s arrival impacts the house and on she herself plays out the second half of this two act play and whilst completely fascinating the story itself is at times a little too hollow, bizarre and unexplained at times.
In the hands of director NIDA graduate and twice Green Room nominee Stephen Nicolazzo, the importance of the staging underpins a key aspect to explaining the isolation and peculiar actions behind each of the characters who inhabit the story. Working with set and costume designer Eugyeene Teh, lighting designer Katie Sfetkidis and sound designer Daniel Nixon the production team have tried to traverse the fine line between period piece and edgy modernism. Upon entry to the theatrette, a sense of theatricality was immediately assumed with a bold shimmering green stage curtain across the front and cleverly pulled around the sides hiding black cloths / symbolic rooms behind. Moody mist and light rain effects from the top and sides added to the immediate eeriness of the time period and situation. This juxtaposition of moody tones and stark reality works well in most cases, even with the grungier Doc Marten look of Marjory the maid, though the point of the converse runners worn by the upper class sister Hudley was lost on this reviewer – perhaps bare feet would have been more fitting for her free spirited interpretation. As the show continued, the minimalist approach worked exceedingly well and the hauntingly dramatic soundscape allowed the shifting scenes to be keep the pace moving well, whilst maintaining connection and tension.
It was the power of the engrossing performances that really seduced the audience to lock into this quirky unfolding absurdist piece. Aldrich was brilliant from start to finish in the demanding central role of Agatha – her piercing, unwavering gaze, her commanding resonant voice and stylised movement really evoked a sense of foreboding and control. Her performance juxtaposed really well with the more fluid representation of her younger sister by McCarthy. She created a lot of the lighter comic moments as she compulsively read from her diary, and her voice was endearing as she sung a ballad near the end, albeit about murder. Perhaps a clearer, more realised darker switch of her character could have been explored somewhat more near the end. Lowry was almost amphibian like as she crouched down or skulked on the edges of the action, quietly observing the actions of her bosses, manipulating situations to her advantage and always maintaining a sense of impulsiveness. Perhaps the only jarring aspect of her performance was the decision of a broad Aussie accent. Boesen was absolutely delightful as the strange arrival – she has a real presence on stage, and completely captivated all with her nervous disposition and sense of trepidation. Her alarm at the real sender and intentions behind her invitation to the manor house was authentic. Her rendition of Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights added to the eccentric environment and satirical humour of the overall vision. The erotic seduction scene between Aldrich and Boesen was beautifully staged, suitably tense and exceptionally delivered making it a real convincing highlight of the show overall.
Mills is no stranger to anthropomorphic representations having successfully personified a chimp in the recent work Trevor. His mastiff impression probably wasn’t as heightened as that but then this is a different play and context and he embodied both the pitiful and enchanted if a little obsessive traits of this friendless family pet. Not certain if Makeeva has ever played a moorhen before but she was equally convincing and entertaining. The two comfortably used words and movements to bring out the quirky sense of humour in their exchanges and with full conviction. As the play progressed the subtle allude to danger was well played by both. The ending of both plotlines were cleverly unexpected yet appropriate, and ultimately, fitting within the context of the place and staging seen to that point.
What impresses most about this interpretation of a relative new work is that Nicolazzo is original and able to extract wholly absorbed performances from his actors. They all drew us into this dark crazy world that seemed a tribute to classic gothic fiction with a dash of quirky Addams family where women are not afraid of going to extremes. The story itself is perhaps not as widely appealing as some of the other offerings this year by Red Stitch but it is a fine example of pushing the interpretative edge of a classic influenced modern work with a completely committed and talented cast and crew.