Something Unspoken review by Virginia Proud
This wonderful short play by Tennessee Williams, presented by the Anthropocene Play Company, introduces Melbourne Fringe audiences to Miss Cornelia Scott and her secretary slash companion, Grace. We meet these ladies on the fifteenth anniversary of Grace joining the household, on the very day that Cornelia hopes to be elected (by acclamation only, mind) as Regent of the Confederate Daughters Society. The threads of Cornelia’s social ambition and her far more personal hopes of the anniversary, twist and twine throughout the narrative to reveal a highly fraught relationship. In this production, director Bronwen Coleman has highlighted the tragedy of the women’s’ situation and there is certainly much tragedy to be found.
With regal bearing and a low southern drawl, Clare Larman performance as her Cornelia Scott is a delight. A woman of apparent fortitude, riddled with insecurity, Cornelia has not deigned to attend the Society’s election yet insists on conveying lengthy instructions via telephone to her inside woman at the meeting. Larman’s delivery conveys all the necessary dignity while still revealing her character’s deep fear of rejection. Her internal conflict is entirely, recognisably human, and delivers welcome moments of humour.
As fans of Williams know, echoes of the trauma of his beloved sister’s schizophrenia and lobotomy can be found in many of his plays. And so it is here, in the character of Grace, played by a Pia O’Meadhra with an ethereal quality, leaning into Grace’s frailty and nervous disposition.
O’Meadhra is clearly much younger than the mid forties ‘faded but pretty’ character that Williams has written, and she has a momentous task with her performance, for us to see two women, who have spent fifteen years together, grown into their habits, dependencies and perhaps, love. Unfortunately, despite O’Meadhra’s obvious talent, I do not think that this was entirely achieved; indeed, barefoot in her dressing gown, there was a waif like quality that could be perceived as childlike, rather than neurotic middle aged. And Grace’s critical monologue, to explain the impossibility of them having a frank conversation by contrasting how each have gone grey, is thus diminished. I do not think that Williams is layering a metaphor upon his analogy here, as the passage of time is fundamental to the women’s current situation.
This leaves Coleman with the additional challenge of conveying not just the tension, but the intimacy between these characters upon which a foundation for ‘something unspoken’ can be laid. An intimacy that could have otherwise been more readily presumed from the circumstances. Having said that, we would not want to see overt displays of affection, or a director to play too eagerly in the emotional territory, and sensibly, Coleman has kept her woman at physical remove for most of the piece. Yet some deeper moments of connection are needed, even slight lifts in Grace’s vitality in her early exchanges with Cornelia could have conveyed much. It was a shame that the rose that Cornelia carries onstage is a symbol of her affection, was immediately lost to view for most of the audience given the unraked seating.
The performance is accompanied by live music, both at introduction and in those critical moments where records are played onstage; the music that smooths over everything and allows the unsaid to remain so. It brought an immediacy to those moments that simply would not have been achieved with recorded sound effects. Staging at Fitzroy’s Hare Hole was wonderfully enhanced by its vivid red flock wallpaper, a gorgeous statement for this piece. An abundance of furniture onstage created an interesting sense of claustrophobia, reflected in the women’s relationship.
Despite these few points, Something Unspoken is a terrific play. It was a pleasure to watch and a highlight of this years Melbourne Fringe.