In 2002, at the 74th Academy Awards a tight, effective albeit schmaltzy Errol Morris short followed an indulgent opening from Tom Cruise about the magic of Hollywood. I remember the film distinctly because it articulated a sentiment that I believed as an adolescent to be true. The film showcased people talking about their favourite movies and the power of films to transport. One of the interviewees said with conviction, “I’d rather go to a mediocre movie than a good play”. I held onto this belief for a really long time and wore it like a film buff would- as a badge of honour, until I saw a play at Theatre Works in 2007 that blew my socks off and changed my whole perspective. The play ignited a fire within me and I went back the night after for more, taking friends so that they too could share in the magic. The play was Mercury Fur, written by Philip Ridley and directed by Ben Packer. Ever since this production, I have always had a soft spot for Theatre Works, hoping that the next play I see there will transport me as that one did.

This is not a retrospective of Mercury Fur, this is a review of The Rivers of China, written by Alma de Groen and directed by Phil Rouse of Don’t Look Away theatre. After seeing the production last Friday night (and I do hate to say this), I am starting to wonder if I will see a good play again. It has been so long- last year in fact. While I don’t know if I will ever relapse to “I’d rather go to a mediocre movie than a good play” I do worry that I’m getting to that jaded and bitter place. Suffice to say, this is how I was feeling as my three friends and I piled out of Theatre Works’ imposing red doors after curtain call. We were collectively disappointed with the production.

The Rivers of China focussed on 1920s New Zealand writer Katherine Mansfield and her spiral into what appeared to be some sort of identity crisis at the hands of spiritual guru and all-round misogynist, George Gurdjieff (played by Rob Meldrum). Mansfield travels to see Gurdjieff at Fontainebleau (against the wishes of her seemingly camp husband) in the hopes of curing her terminal tuberculosis (a disease which took Mansfield’s life at the age of 34). By contrast, the play was also set in Melbourne, (circa now) where a young man (James Cook) has awoken in a hospital bed to find his world dominated by women and his identity- displaced. ‘The man’ (as he is known) believes fervently that he is Katherine Mansfield so you can imagine his surprise when he looks in the mirror to see an entirely different person. While the play encompassed other characters and B stories, these relationships seemed cumbersome and muddled, particularly a bizarre scene that could have easily been extracted from another play where a director talks through his shots for a snuff porn shoot. Perhaps in the 80s when the play was initially performed, it would have had more weight but in my opinion, compelling writing should stand the test of time. Protagonist aside, it was as if this play was having an identity crisis of its own and that made it an enormously frustrating production to sit though.

This brings me to the performances which were uncompelling and at times unbearably histrionic. I also wasn’t convinced by era which I think was in part a fault of the performances but also that of the costume design (Martelle Hunt) which didn’t enhance character at all. In hindsight I was particularly disappointed with the interpretation of the twenties costume wise. It must be said that Alexandra Aldrich, Rob Meldrum and Tom Heath provided the most robust performances of this cast of six but it wasn’t enough. With this said, I believe that ultimately the performances were ineffective largely due to the material which I can’t envision performed in a way that would lift the platform of this play.

My primary qualm with this production was actually not the performances though- it was with the use of space. The set design, (Martelle Hunt) while on initial sighting was interesting, particularly the use of levels and the juxtaposition of the tranquil vs the clinical, was possibly one of the most ineffective uses of space I have ever seen at the theatre. This was of course due in part to the direction of the actors but also the functionality of the design. From where I was sitting I could see actors waiting in the wings to come on before scenes (always something that ruins the magic for me) and the seating layout allowed for one of the most poorly behaved audiences I have ever witnessed. Having been shushed throughout my adolescence by older generations at cinemas and the like I felt like yelling out mid-play “Could the three ladies in the front row, stage right, have some goddam respect and keep their discussion for the car ride on the way home!” Additionally, people walked out and never returned, people left for toilet breaks and God-knows what other reasons and there was a sea of phone checking throughout the performance. While theatre behaviour like this is indeed disgraceful, I do believe it was facilitated by the layout and design. It just wasn’t conducive to an environment where audiences are there to watch and absorb the material. Further, the performances weren’t compelling enough to be done in the round. It felt more like a football game than a play.

As usual, I hated the use of an interval- it just made the process that much longer and it is my personal opinion that if an audience cannot sit for two hours straight (which I know they can because anything James Cameron does is three hours) and people flock to see that- there are some real problems with execution.

With respect to lighting and sound, I guess it was satisfactory. I must say that I did like the use of warm lights to convey sunlight but again, nothing about this production got my attention and that was at the heart of the problem. What’s interesting is that the aftermath of seeing the play led me to extensive research on Katherine Mansfield’s life and what I uncovered after watching countless documentaries is that her biography alone is fascinating. It is a great shame that the initial script didn’t focus on aspects of her life that were truly controversial at the time and that would have facilitated healthy discussion today as well. For example, a play about Mansfield that focussed on organisations that try to ‘pray the gay away’- which is precisely something that affected the real Katherine Mansfield who was sent to Bad Worishofen (Germany) by her mother to cure her alleged lesbian sexual predilections may have made for some interesting drama onstage and a robust narrative. Now that’s a play I’d like to see. With this said and despite my harsh critique, I hope this production of The Rivers of China is a play that resonates with others.

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