Review By Lisa Lanzi
There are those rare times attending a work of theatre when you appreciate that you are witnessing something profound. Michèle Saint-Yves’ Clock For No Time is a work that offers a fresh paradigm by embedding diversity and inclusion within the art. I urge other artists to inspect the entire audience information pack provided as a best-practice example for moving forward to a time where disability, neurodivergent, and Deaf culture -friendly environments are not simply an afterthought.
To support her father prior to his death Saint-Yves, living with acquired brain injury, travelled to Scotland with him. This journey took such a huge toll on her own health that back in Australia, she was no longer able to assist in his care as late-stage Alzheimer’s took hold. During convalescence Saint-Yves observed and wrote about the similarities of her and her father’s impaired neurologies which planted the seeds for Clock For No Time .
The narrative here does delve into the complexities of neuroscience with some didactic elements but it is the poetic, image-rich wordplay that shines through, as delivered by three performers of the highest calibre. Saint-Yves has said in interview that her “writing life is a direct consequence of my ABI”. Reading their biography reveals a fearsomely intelligent human and a career that would exhaust anyone, let alone someone choosing to navigate the adventure with brain injury. Their writing praxis may have emerged slightly later in life but the expressive depth and complexity is astounding. One utterly beautiful element within this play is the seamless integration of accessible descriptions into the characters’ monologues and musings.
Thematically, Clock For No Time examines the realities of acquired brain injury and dementia in the context of a tender father-daughter relationship. The concept of time is important - time passing, lost, or slowing; The tragedy of loss; the accumulative demise, in terms of dementia, before final loss/death; the idea of what might be left behind. Climate change is also declared as inspiration and theme but is present to a much lesser extent than the deeply human subject matter.
The black box space at Rumpus is transformed into a tranquil environment for this play. There is no overly bright use of lighting and the pace is calm and quite slow, almost meditative, but not at all tedious. The performance area is a wide and narrow almost promenade style space and the cast also circle and interact some with the audience, using multiple entrance and exits. There are diverse seating choices (different heights, cushions, mats, table-and-chair options) depending on need or preference plus the offer of trained assistants for those who wish it. The width of the stage space, while mostly working well, was very wide and personally I would not have enjoyed being at the extreme sides. Live narration was voiced by Saint-Yves, captioning on three screens, and a projected video of an Auslan interpreter during some scenes.
The projection design from Mark Oakley was thoughtfully conceived. Cast onto a black wall, the large-scale images are subtle and more ephemeral than usual and gave a well-worn, calming timbre to the background. The integration of these moving and still images enhanced the narrative: a gently rippling water surface; the cosmos and solar system; ganglia, neurons, and renderings of other connective brain tissue; MRI scans shifting through layers of the brain; a window with venetian blind; an unmoving clock face. Set and costume design by Bianka Kennedy was minimalist but evocative leaving space and opportunity for the actors to work their magic. The central column of the theatre wall where father and daughter return a number of times to lean in and commune was a wonderful use of available architecture, both a support for the two and a separation metaphor.
As profoundly emotional but at the same time uplifting as the biographical story is, the actors and their brilliant interpretations took this work to an intense, connected level. I had the impression that a goodly amount of collaboration occurred between these accomplished performers and Saint-Yves in the director role. Jo Stone conveys Simone with dignity, compassion, subtlety and grace. Her deep relationship to the role and relationship with the audience was sublime, from her rich voicing of the text to her considered, perfected physicality referencing a person with brain injury.
Paul Reichstein was a revelation as Ian, Simone’s father. To observe the creation of a whole character from the feet up is mesmerizing. Reichstein perfected the physicality associated with dementia to such an astonishing degree that the few moments where he reverts to a ‘past’ Ian are quite astonishing. His powerful voice also shifted between the halting rhythms of dementia-speak and the assured tones of the doctor-father in his prime.
In three different roles, Jennifer Liston also shines. She is Margaret (Simone’s mother), MRI technician and another presence who illuminates some of the more poetic moments. Liston is also in possession of the most lyrical and exquisite singing voice, delivering an A Cappella version of Memory and a heartbreaking rendition of Loch Lomond as finale. The visceral synergy of the three performers was extraordinary and truly created a moment out of time for this play to inhabit.
One issue must be touched on, however, yet so much more discussion is needed in a wider context than is available here. Stone and Reichstein do not have lived experience with an acquired brain injury or dementia and at this point in history, a contentious subject with conflicting views. One view is that the job of acting is to ‘transform’ therefore why not a non-disabled actor for a disabled role. Other views maintain that the best person for the job should be considered no matter what the role requires. Still another view posits that ONLY disabled actors should be offered the role of a disabled character, and further, should live with the disability being portrayed. However, Saint-Yves has stated elsewhere that she considers them (her cast) to be “acting in a field of permission”. This definitely needs further unpacking - all artists should take part in the discussion and find equitable ways to solve this.
Saint-Yves hopes “….that audiences respond in such a way that their hearts crack open a bit and this has a ripple effect on what values they choose to centre on...”. I simply want as many people as possible to see this work, and keep the conversation going.