Written in 1995 by Doug Wright, Quills is an Obie award – winning, multi – layered, cerebral tug o’ war. The American playwright and screenwriter is also a Pulitzer Prize winner for I Am My Own Wife (2004). His other works of note include Interrogating the Nude (1992) along with the book musicals, Grey Gardens (2006), and Hands on a Hardbody (2011).

Based on the final days in detainment of the Marquis de Sade, Quills is a daring study of sexual perversity, freedom of speech, political corruption, religious salvation, class status and questionable madness. The play’s intellectual crux asks why some artists are compelled to push boundaries, and how they ignite society’s inner darkness in the process. That paradox holds true to this day and debate still runs hot, as to whether the notorious Marquis was a genius or in fact completely insane.

In 2000 Quills was made into an all – star motion picture with Geoffrey Rush (as the Marquis), Joaquin Phoenix (as Abbe de Coulmier), Michael Caine (as Dr. Royer-Collard), and Kate Winslett (as Madeleine LeClerc).  Directed by Philip Kaufman with a screenplay by Wright, the film was nominated for many major acting and writing trophies.

In a major coup for Mockingbird Theatre, Wright personally granted the independent company special permission to perform his script. This is the first time local audiences will see Quills presented live in full on the professional stage.

Chris Baldock is Mockingbird Theatre’s founder and artistic driving force. As the visionary responsible for both direction and set concept, Baldock brings this challenging labour of love to life. His experienced production team includes Soren Jensen (Assistant Direction), Merinda Backway (Set Design), Jason Bovaird and Ben Howlett (Lighting Design), Kellie Bray and Victoria Haslam (Costume Design).

The Arts House at Melbourne’s historic Meat Market Craft Centre could not be a better choice of venue.  As Quills is set inside France’s Charenton asylum fortress, much of the atmospheric ground – work for this production is already in place. For the most part, the building’s vaulted interior appears to paint the space in varying shades of candlelight. Running the full length of the auditorium, the deceptively simple set is made up of three distinct sections. Divided by a central stage, at one end is the Marquis’ cell and at the other is the Doctor’s office. 

Perhaps drawing on Peter Weiss’ Marat / Sade (1976) and that show’s original title (The Prosecution and Assassination of Jean Paul Marat performed by the play-acting group at the Charenton Asylum under the direction of the Marquis de Sade), the performance details here are similarly drawn.

It has been historically documented that as part of his patients’ ongoing therapy, the real Abbe de Coulmier encouraged and allowed Charenton’s prisoners to stage their own productions. So in possible self – reference, the entire cast of Quills appear to be playing lunatics putting on a show. A deliciously twisted take on Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, instead of noble students storming the barricades, crazed inmates are running the mad house.

Keeping this in mind, Mockingbird Theatre’s cast walk a Grand Guignol path lined with blood, copious amounts of flesh, heated melodrama and lashings of black humour. At two hours in length, even in the play’s quieter moments, Quills’ pulsating tension is never once relinquished or its delicate spell broken. Adorned in rags or period costumes with a dress – up box appeal, the cast perform as if they are all slightly unhinged.

Imperative to this production’s success as the lunatics of Charenton, the twenty-one strong ensemble exhibit fearless commitment. The group’s movement, framing and placement are also given a choreographic importance in relation to the pandemonium playing around them.

Dylan Watson (as The Abbe de Coulmier) and Adam Ward (Dr Royer-Collard) made terrific sparring partners not only with each other, but the Marquis as well. Watching Watson’s slow descent into madness was very convincing.

Andrea McCannon gave Renee Pelagie, the Marquis’ long – suffering wife, a good balance of pride and shame.  She played the role with a sense of impending collapse that made one really feel for her.

Andi Snelling (Madame Royer-Collard) seemed to be having a ball with Jordan Armstrong (Monsieur Prouix). Their bawdy scene together particularly outlined the hypocrisy surrounding the cause and effect of censorship.

Lauren Murtagh gave the Marquis’ young ally, Madeleine LeClerc, both vulnerability and sexual empowerment. Her character walked into the spider’s lair, meanwhile knowing exactly what she was doing.
Adrian Carr IS the Marquis.

Part Jack Nicholson’s Randle McMurphy (from One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest) and John Malcovich’s Vicomte Sébastien de Valmont (from Dangerous Liaisons,) he is charming, seductive, dangerous and hypnotic all at once.  As it his character’s task to carry most of the taboo themes that the show addresses, in Carr’s hands one never doubts the threat the Marquis was to society. Like Geoffrey Rush from the film, Carr is as comfortable in his own skin as most actors are in full costume.

Melbourne’s Mockingbird Theatre has quickly earned a reputation for presenting poetic yet radical, cutting edge drama.  Recent hits include The Laramie Project (by Moisés Kaufman), How I Learned To Drive (Paula Vogel), Equus (Peter Shaffer), Kiss of The Spider Woman (Manual Puig), and The Judas Kiss (David Hare).

Hot on the heels of these provocative choices, the repertory company has gone all – out with their most ambitious, confronting and powerful production to date. 

 

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