By Isabella Olsson
Edward Albee’s plays have always read to me a bit like poetry – rhythmic and multilayered, musing on big themes like family and loss, revelling in the sardonic, semi-absurd interactions between his characters. A Delicate Balance, originally performed in 1966 and revived by Sydney Classic Theatre Company, is true to form Albee, and much of the joy of this production lies in his delicious, almost melodic dialogue.
The play revolves around empty nesters Agnes (Alice Livingstone) and Tobias (Martin Bell), who accommodate Agnes’ alcoholic sister Claire (Suzann James) in their guest room, and semi-regularly welcome back their adult daughter Julia (Zoë Crawford) from yet another failed marriage – the count is up to four. Their family unit is disrupted by the sudden arrival of friends Harry (James Bean) and Edna (Alison Chambers), who escape from an intangible “terror” facing them at their own home, and they set themselves up at Agnes and Tobias’ house despite the discomfort this causes the rest of the characters.
It’s a dense, complex text, and director Victor Kalka’s production wrangles with its themes admirably. The two older couples are a compelling exploration on the co-dependency of middle age, and reflecting on a life lived with and moulded to another person. Early in the play, Martin Bell’s Tobias presents a captivating monologue on his relationship with a cat in his youth, a cat that was his constant companion for 15 years until, out of the blue, it stopped liking him. The pain and frustration of renegotiating a relationship, of accepting change and loss, is beautifully conveyed and continues to re-emerge throughout the rest of the play. We get an interesting examination of generational differences in Julia’s volatile struggle between wanting independence and freedom from her marriages, while still falling back into the comfort of her childhood, which is played against the constancy of her parents’ relationship. There are also some excellent performances, particularly from Alison Chambers and James Bean as the traumatised guests Edna and Harry, and Suzann James as vibrant, chaotic Claire.
The play works best when it is clear on its intent: the text is so layered and intricate that it’s easy to get lost if the production is not adequately focused. Problems arise in its design, which doesn’t quite seem to know where to ground itself – the older characters were dressed in beautiful 1960s clothes, but the black sheep characters Julia and Claire were in outfits that wouldn’t be out of place in 2019. If this contrast was intentional, it didn’t quite hit the mark, and the play felt jarringly out of time. The lack of certainty on its setting also compromised some of its themes, particularly to do with gender and generational conflict – we didn’t know whether we were looking in on a family in the 60s coming to terms with new gender norms and familial expectations, or if this was being played out in the present day, a radically different context with a completely different set of values that completely alters the meaning of the play.
There are also slight oversights and issues with performances that detract slightly from our experience – accents slip, lines were missed at times and the punchiness of the content was somewhat compromised by actors occasionally falling out of sync with each other. The set was vacuous and sparse, which although sometimes worked to emphasise the feeling of disconnect between characters, at other points left the actors floundering in its emptiness.
A Delicate Balance is a big play with big ideas, and you are left with a lot to chew on and deliberate as these timeless themes of family and connection are examined and toyed with. It’s a shame that the production is not more grounded in what it wants to explore, because while there is a lot there that works, some of it also just falls flat or feels a little under baked. A Delicate Balance is an ambitious project, and it should be commended for what it succeeds at doing – bringing to life a beautiful, complex script and offering a mirror for the audience to reflect on their own lives and relationships.
A Delicate Balance is playing at Chippen St Theatre until November 16.
Image Credit: Blake Condon
All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.