Playwright Amy Herzog, known to Melbourne audiences from Red Stitch’s 2013 production of 4000 Miles, does not disappoint with her latest offering – Belleville – which explores an American couple struggling to keep themselves and their relationship together whilst living in a tiny Parisian flat.
The play opens with Abby’s (Christina O’Neill) arrival home from a yoga class she was meant to teach – but no-one turned up. When she accidentally walks in on her husband Zack (Paul Ashcroft) surfing Internet porn, the uncomfortable tone of their relationship is set, and it’s all downhill from there. Things really get worse when shortly after, their landlord Alioune (Renaud Momtbrun) comes over to extract from them four months’ unpaid rent.
It becomes quickly apparent that Abby and Zack’s relationship is a sea of problems: Abby – paranoid, anxious and off her medication – is homesick and still mourning the death of her mother. Paralysed by a childhood filled with the phrase “it doesn’t matter what you do with your life as long as it makes you happy,” she flounders around seeking a purpose. Zack is a doctor, but he can barely utter a lie-free sentence and he swings between infantilising and manipulating Abby, who in turn treats her husband badly. It’s a destructive tornado of a marriage.
O’Neill and Ashcroft give strong performances, although there is a disturbing lack of true, honest affection between the two characters. This may be intended to highlight the distance between Abby and Zack, but instead it draws attention to each character’s selfishness and tendency for emotional abuse, prompting the audience to question what they ever really saw in each other. It is this dynamic, that often makes Abby and Zack hard to relate to or invest in: they do not like themselves or one another, and neither of them really have any redeeming qualities.
As Alioune, Momtbrum gives a nuanced and generous performance. Alioune and his wife Amina – played beautifully by Tariro Mavondo – represent all that Abby and Zack will never have. It makes for some truly uncomfortable scenes between the four characters, and ultimately serves as a great contrast of couples differentiated by their upbringing, culture and outlook on life.
Alioune and Amina’s final scene, delivered entirely in French, was riveting despite the fact I didn’t understand a word they said. It would have been nice to have had a translation in the programme, for there was a feeling of missing out on an intriguing conversation that demonstrated the connection and love never present in Abby and Zack’s marriage.
Belleville is a beautifully written play that explores a turbulent and abusive relationship in painful detail and urges the audience to examine the relationships in their own lives. Sadly, the direction by Denny Lawrence does the writing a real disservice. Awkward, self-conscious blocking pulls the audience out of the drama: the actors often seem self-conscious in the space, and while this may have worked within the context of the play, it is not executed with enough conviction to make it believable. This may settle, however, as the season wears on.
Set design by Jacob Battista, combined with Clare Springett’s lighting, wonderfully evokes the cosiness of a Parisian apartment that can so quickly turn into a claustrophobic prison. The wall-turned-scrim gimmick in the final scene was a little jarring, and the action could have been more effective off-stage, however this may have been written into the script.
Despite some strange directorial choices, Belleville is worth the ticket price just to see the stunning acting that is always the highlight of Red Stitch’s productions. It remains a complex and thought-provoking piece of drama that will likely stay with you long after you leave the theatre.