Caution: this review contains spoilers
Pretence by Haley Lawson-Smith and directed by Daniel Kerhsaw is the most effective kind of satire; my companion left amused and I left feeling disturbed. It’s a hilariously observational send up of the theatre but its strongest foundations are its exploration of the more unsavoury and destructive elements.
Running at a brisk and efficient 35 minutes Pretence shows two up and coming actresses; down to earth Maggie (Hayley Lawson-Smith) and tightly wound, patronising Cleopatra (Aimee Sanderson) attending a call back for a new play which they have both been provided different and sometimes conflicting information. The two are seemingly opposites and in the absence of the director or any of the production team they are left to exchange passive-aggressive put downs, acting tips and their own experiences. Maggie favours on the ground experience and has worked extensively backstage, Cleopatra is from an affluent background and has been trained (or converted) in method acting in expensive and exclusive courses. The dynamic between Sanderson and Lawson-Smith is particularly combustible which gives their verbal sparring a deliciously sharp edge, it’s to the credit of the writing how seamlessly the emotional stakes are established for these two women. It’s an uncomfortably relatable how she conveys how an audition, no matter what the project is, can dictate your self-worth not only as a creative but as a human being. Such vulnerable states of mind are easily manipulated and exploited; I appreciated the delicacy with which this was explored.
What I find particularly exciting about the Times up movement is the bravery with which creatives have come out on en masse about their treatment within the industry and it’s leading to exciting and revolutionary discussions about professionalism and ethical practices within our theatre. The most barbed satire is reserved for the unseen (he is allowed a fatuous voice-over) director who is revered as a ‘genius’; in a short time, we get chilling insight into the pervasive toxicity that can often fester. (Spoiler) It’s revealed that the whole audition is a sham and their behaviour has been caught on camera for the purposes of a reality TV show. It’s a thrillingly cynical twist that encapsulates the frequency with which vulnerabilities are manipulated and artists, especially women are pitted against each other in the name of ‘entertainment’.
This is beautifully encapsulated in the character of Cleo and Aimee Sanderson’s brilliant characterisation. We’ve all met a Cleo; someone who is seemingly entitled, pretentious; who waxes incessantly about their superior training. She describes her training (I’m paraphrasing) as being torn down to her core wounds and been ‘reborn’ but I don’t get that she’s been taught any kind of ways to protect herself emotionally during these exercises. Thus, she is rawly exposed to her deepest vulnerabilities, believing she must insert herself into the role if she’s to play it effectively. I know actors who’ve internalised this to such a degree that it’s had dire emotional and professional consequences. At least they have the potential to be deeply unpleasant to work with and at worst can lead to an emotional breakdown. Ms Sanderson’s performance is beautifully pitched, her egotistic pretentions are played to hilarious effect but there’s a core vulnerability to her performance that she uses to timely effect.
Haley Lawson-Smith’s Maggie is much more grounded and calls for a much a more subtle performance. It’s a potent physical performance rooted in self awareness and relatable frustration. Maggie, seemingly holds the moral high ground for much of the play as most of her behaviour is in response to Cleo’s theatrics; I personally would have liked to have seen a bit more moral ambiguity and deeper exploration into Maggie’s experiences which I feel would have provided more mutuality between the characters and created a more satisfying arc.
Both performances support and complement each other’s skills beautifully; director Daniel Yann has done a wonderful job at facilitating such a strong relationship, he also makes excellent use of the space to create tension and exploration.
Pretence has won many well-deserved awards around Australia, it’s such strong material that I wish it had been longer. I feel we need more works exploring and critiquing the dynamics between performers and the professional culture of the performing arts. Haley Lawson-Smith has proven herself particularly adept at exploring that balance with empathy and wit, it’s an exciting beginning for an emerging playwright and I can’t wait to see what she develops next.
Pretence runs at the Butterfly Club until June 8th.