A failed wedding and the end of the world bookend ‘Melancholia’, a stage adaptation of Lars von Trier’s film of the same name. In between, there is the mental and spiritual breakdown of a woman in crisis, and the Chekhovian disintegration of her wealthy family.
The production is visually beautiful, with strong performances. As Justine, Eryn Jean Norvill performs a spiralling woman with dignity and drama, though Matthew Lutton’s direction leads her to some clichéd choices at times. Leeanna Walsman’s performance as Justine’s sister Claire is arresting and nuanced, full of the grace and panic one might expect from a wealthy woman whose sister is falling apart. Gareth Yuen as the groom and Steve Mouzakis as the despotic brother-in-law are both believable, though have less of a chance to show their range than either of the women, whose relationship is the core of the performance. The star performance, however, is Maude Davey’s turn as Justine and Claire’s mother. She is deeply funny with excellent comic timing, but heart wrenchingly connected to her character’s disappointment and rage. Her physical performance is active but subtle, and her blistering, devastating monologue about what her daughters have in store for them as the age into crone-hood is the best moment of the play.
‘Melancholia’ is solid enough. Marg Horwell’s set is – as ever – impressive and matches form to content with intelligence and elegance. Paul Jackson’s lighting is – as ever – beautifully evocative and affecting. Lutton’s direction is accomplished, though it could be more exciting and surprising, and Declan Greene’s script adapts the film into theatre with an eye to form, and while it falls over in a few places – noticeably its poetic interludes – it is well-paced, funny, and emotive.
I question, however, whether Greene and Lutton were the right people for the job. Underlying ‘Melancholia’ is a baffling and infuriating lack of interest in the inner world of women, which undermines the entire production. There is nothing in particular to point to that illuminates this, but it is a feeling which pervades the production and leaves it wanting. While on paper ‘Melancholia’ propounds a personal and emotive look inside a woman’s depression, circled by romanticism and destruction (as Lutton’s directors note points out), the thread of madness through this play feels like a Freudian jaunt into a nineteenth-century-understanding of hysteria which demonises women’s feelings and utterly divorces them from the situation at hand. Might Justine be losing her mind because of a disastrous wedding day, dry and uncommunicative relationship, controlling sister and boss, and struggling mother? Perhaps her knowledge that the world is about to end could play into her depressive state? This production does not make meaningful connections between any of this, and leaves Justine as a cliched shadow of the mad woman in the attic – an image which is tired, unwanted, and unhelpful. ‘Melancholia’ provided an opportunity for a beautiful, nuanced and poetic exploration of women’s mental health and loneliness, but instead it felt as though the grandness of the production and the egos of its makers took centre stage.