Thursday, 19 July 2018

Melancholia – Adapted to the Stage by Declan Greene, Malthouse Theatre

Eryn Jean Norvill on Marg Horwell's set, lit by Paul Jackson,
Melancholia at the Malthouse
Photo: Pia Johnson

Confetti, or maybe ash, falls from the sky. Justine, in a wedding dress, the trim of her skirts stained with mud, trudges out into the soft deluge. This is meant to be a day of celebration, but she can’t quite bring herself to be happy.

“You had one job,” her brother-in-law yells at her later, after an uncomfortable speech at the reception, where he reminds her of things she didn’t get done before she left work two weeks ago.

He’s talking about her happiness and the tagline for the campaign she was working on. Justine has failed at delivering both. It’s hard enough that her work life and her family life are intertwined. She is also suffering from depression. And the planet Melancholia is on a collision course with earth.

Based on the film of the same name, written and directed by Lars Von Trier, playwright Declan Greene and director Matthew Lutton have translated this epic story to the stage in a confronting and striking way. Their previous collaborations, Pompeii L.A. and I Am A Miracle, took the mundane and placed those stories into an epic tableau.

Melancholia feels like a companion piece to those earlier works; frail humans elevated to the sublime. But much like the flawed characters, the production is not flawless, it has faults or maybe just fault lines.

Before an actor steps foot onstage, Marg Horwell’s exquisite design tells us this is the story of the upper classes, a wedding inside a grand home, decorated with floral carpeting and a chandelier. The figure of Justine then appears, the first glimpse of Eryn Jean Norvill’s complicated, unforgettable performance.


Eryn Jean Norvill as Justine, Melancholia
Photo: Pia Johnson
Justine has moments where she is fully in control of her life and we see this most clearly in the lyrical, poetic monologues that Declan has crafted. We are captivated by this perfectly-coiffed, grandly-styled bride who holds our unwavering attention for many long minutes during the first act. She may not be wholly thrilled by the events of her wedding day, but she can see the beauty of the world and the darkness that is on its way.

Her family is there, of course, but not exactly to support her. Her mother doesn’t want to make a speech but then she drunkenly stumbles through one, in a scene-stealing performance by Maude Davey. Her brother-in-law wants to talk about work. Her sister, Claire, tries to wrangle everything so the day goes off without a hitch; she’s the control-freak of the family but maybe this is to mask a hidden pain, too.

The play, much like the film (which I haven’t seen), is divided into two acts. If Justine has any semblance of control in act one, she loses it to an extended episode of depression in act two. This troubled articulate woman fades into a figure who needs help to walk and to sit and Norvill’s abilities are even more impressive in the second half than the first. She has such a command of the language and of her body that each articulation, each twitch and movement, tells a deeper story. It’s a performance that will stay with me.

The second half of the production drags just a little, even as the story heads toward cataclysm. Brother-in-law John mostly attends to his and Claire’s child, after making such a strong impression in the first half. Steve Mouzakis plays him as mercurial; one minute he seems to be joking, and the next he’s going for the jugular. The mother character hangs around to little purpose later on.

The relationship between Justine and Claire is central, though, and fascinating. Norvill may be allowed to command the stage more often, but Leanna Walsman proves her match when they go one-on-one, dealing with their fractured family and the end of the world.

Horwell’s set goes through simple, subtle changes, while Paul Jackson’s lighting does a lot of the heavy lifting as moods and planetary alignments shift and change. There was a moment late in the show where subtle alterations in set and lighting states made it feel like things were undulating in front of me, as if parts of the theatre itself had become unstuck, unstable. It was deeply unsettling.

Melancholia is another arresting collaboration by Declan and Matthew, where beauty and darkness collide and both the epic and intimate can be mistaken for one another.

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