Please note that this review contains spoilers.
With its rich and highly diverse performing arts scene, Melbourne is blessed with some outstanding independent theatre groups including Red Stitch, Q44 and Sol III. Individually, they have presented some fine examples of acting for actors such as ‘Jumpers for Goalposts’ (by Tom Wells for Red Stitch), ‘Savage in Limbo’ (by John Patrick Shanley for Q44) and ‘Cherry Smoke’ (by James McManus for Sol III).
Now a brand new association, Artefact Theatre Co., enters the fray with their intelligently – crafted and sensitive production of ‘Proof’.
Created by the American playwright, David Auburn, for the Manhattan Theatre Club, ‘Proof’ started life Off – Broadway in May 2000, before quickly transferring to Broadway five months later. The following year, Auburn’s masterful piece won him the coveted Pulitzer Prize for Drama. He also collected a bounty of other prestigious accolades for best play, including Drama Desk, Lucille Lortelle, New York Drama Critics Circle, and Tony Awards. ‘Proof’ earned its female lead, Mary Louise Parker, both Drama Desk and Tony wins for Best Actress in a Play, as well as a Best Director (Tony Award) nod for Daniel Sullivan.
During the tremendous international interest surrounding ‘Proof’, in 2002 the Melbourne Theatre Company created an acclaimed version of its own. Directed by Simon Phillips, it starred Rachel Griffiths, Christopher Gabardi, Belinda McClory, and Frank Gallacher. Three years later in 2005, ‘Proof’ was made into a feature film with Gwyneth Paltrow (who had also led the Donmar Warehouse staging on London’s West End), Jake Gyllenhaal, Hope Davis and Anthony Hopkins.
The play’s enigmatic title may be read in a number of different ways.
In academic terms, a proof is an example of deductive reasoning. Choosing this name also appears to act as springboard for the strained connection between the main character, Catherine (played here by Madeleine Jevic), and her late father, Robert (Roy Barker). A renowned former mathematics professor who grappled with degenerative mental illness, Catherine was given the responsibility of looking after him in the years leading up to his death.
Their relationship was a tense and complex one. Having apparently inherited her father’s genius, Robert expected his daughter to match him puzzle for puzzle. Though the play’s text is heavily – laden with mathematic references, this deliberate plot driving – device is never less than accessible.
Putting her own life on hold, Catherine not only had to deal with Robert’s constant and tiresome demands, she also secretly worries if his disorder is genetic. Her fear is outlined by two parallel storylines.
One, is the fact that Catherine’s concerned yet manipulative older sister, Claire (Anna Burgess), thinks the same thing. The second is the discovery of a ground – breaking proof in her father’s desk by Robert’s former student, Hal (Mark Yeates). This find and whom its exact author is, becomes both the crux of the play, and Catherine’s determination to clear her mental health.
Essentially a study in relationships, ‘Proof’ is made up of two hour – long acts. Each part contains a handful of key episodes, presented exactly four years apart both in present time and in flashback. Despite the heavy subject matter, ‘Proof’ has some well – delivered (and received) lighter moments, too.
Act One begins with Catherine seated alone on the back porch of her father’s ramshackle home. Here, Jevic is able to communicate her character’s life in flux without uttering a single word. That she soon has a heated conversation with her dead father prior to his funeral, reinforces the dream – like privacy of this play. At times it feels like we are almost spying on this family’s most testing and emotional moments.
Unlike the film, which opened out the story as well as adding secondary characters, the use of a lone set (skillfully designed by Yeates) gives strength to the voyeuristic role handed to the audience. This staging also gives ‘Proof’ a sense of emotional limbo, where the back porch appears to represent Catherine’s inability to choose how she will move forward with her life.
Thanks to this experienced foursome’s careful yet naturalistic approach, and expert direct by Emily O’Brien – Brown, ‘Proof’ also carries an inherent truth throughout its 120 – minute running time.
Anyone with family members or friends that have been touched by dementia or schizophrenia, will completely understand Robert’s bouts of rage. Knowing that his mind is slipping away, Barker communicates his character’s agonising loss in Act Two with a powerful desperation.
Burgess allows Claire to be an unlikeable study in contrast. It is a bold choice and shows her tremendous acting range. (With a flair for broad comedy, Burgess recently played the dippy wasp, Melody, in the hit play, ‘Bad Jews’)
Upright and tightly – wound, yet knowing the minefield she is walking across, one sees glimpses of the relationship she once shared with Catherine. Fostered by Robert’s perfectionism, there is an element of competition between the two women. But at the same time, the love, mutual understanding, and support between them is still evident. Both Burgess and Jevic play their scenes together with sibling conviction.
As Hal, Yeates paints his character with cute and youthful, puppy – dog ambition. Though three years older than Catherine, the connection they soon share will give him the emotional maturity and human insight he initially lacks.
From the lost soul she has become to the life – seeking person she once was, Jevic reminded me of a young Jodi Foster. Full of feeling bubbling below the surface, we watch both her character’s crumbling collapse, and her phoenix as she rises from the ashes.
Excellent Lighting Design by Ashlee Blakers, Sound Design by Christian Biko, and Stage Management by Grace Quealy keep the momentum of this chamber drama, always moving.
It should be noted that Mark Yeates formed Artefact with a view to presenting ‘compelling and influential theatre’. In his care, Proof is flush with strong attention to technical and character detail. It is well worth the journey.