By Sasha Meaney
Julia Leigh’s debut play “Avalanche: A Love Story” is markedly generous, offering an insight into humanity’s capacity for fragility and determination.
In collaboration with Sydney Theatre Company, Barbaican Theatre (UK) and Fertility Fest (UK), Leigh presents us with a one-woman story about love. And wonderfully it’s not in the drowning cliched terms of fierce and leisurely self-love. Instead her canvas protagonist, “Woman”, finds love in a life of purpose beyond the nuclear family that alludes her.
Leigh’s writing feels reminiscent of past tragic heroes that fight the currents of determinism. These epic heroes, often male, courageously fight for glory or till they rollover when death finds them. “Woman” treads a middle ground. Fate in modernity is represented by percentages, science and economics. As she embarks mid-life, through trying cycles of IVF she fights for her odds. She fights for her “childlings”, demanding us to respect them and the real inescapable yearning she has for their potential.
Maxine Peake strides into the role of Woman with full control of her person and voice. She plays her intelligently, covering up the character's self-doubt with an overpowering and humorous cynicism. Blending the voice of declamatory group therapy with the self-deprecation of stand up, she never loses sight of her audience. Peake’s focus is always on giving and releasing energy to the audience, and never about self-indulgence.
Anne Louise Starks' direction of the play never lulls into the Sisyphus repetition of Woman’s struggle with IVF. Each loss winds us, and Woman’s gritty optimism keeps the audience wincing with bated breath for what can only be disappointment. Pushing against the audience, Leigh refuses any condescension. She finds bitter sweetness in the heartbreak presented to us in a beautifully crafted script. Her writing pours forth from Peake as would an epic ballad. Each phrase is turned like music and Peake’s clarity in performance means there is no over sentimentality to hide behind. It’s wrenching stuff.
This simplicity is reflected in the show’s design. The stage is stark and clinical, a blank canvas of a white walled room that overpowers the stage. The rise in Woman’s tension and desperation is accentuated by Lizzie Powell’s and Stefan Gregory’s mastery of stage magic. It’s just enough to keep you stimulated without losing focus on Woman. The final impression of the show’s design drives home to us that after so much pent up anxiety our own falling apart is more sublime than we give it credit for.
Based on the writer’s own experiences, the excruciating detail and intimacy of “Avalanche: A Love Story” proves that personal is political. The relationship between the audience and Woman progresses at an overwhelming speed and in a proximity that feels claustrophobic. It’s a self-declaration only possible in a solo piece of theatre. Our inability to look away forces us to push pass the uncomfortable and engage with an isolation that is not unfamiliar. Prescribed and self-punishing ideas of love are felt by all at one stage or another, and this heroine’s acceptance of wider definitions of love is a long-awaited, universal exhale. A testimony to strength in vulnerability that has come forth from wonderful and careful collaboration. It makes this reviewer very excited to see further original stories that will have this much heart.
All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.