Review by Lily Stokes
Two of three short plays by Will Eno, Mr Theatre and Lady Grey (in ever lower light) debuted as part of Intermission by San Fransican troupe Cutting Ball Theatre 2011. Alongside Thom Pain (based on nothing), both short plays use a solitary performer to create a painfully self-aware statement about how gender is performed, policed and portrayed by and in theatre’s narratives.
Presented by Jollygood Company, this double bill is a jewel in the crown of Panimo Creatives’ Panimo Pandemonium. It’s thrilling to see under-performed pieces brought to life by fresh talent in the wake of COVID-19, so I’d like to congratulate the whole creative team for creating such a cohesive and well-considered experience.
As the centrepiece of the double bill, Lady Grey interrogates the definition, performance and perception and womanhood through the maniacal musings of a (somewhat) nameless heroine. As she relives a painful childhood memory of show-and-tell, ‘Jen’ (or “anyone, for that matter”) “lacerate[s] [a] woman into a girl” by narrating her self-conceptualisation, informed by the suffocating confines of gender and lasting damage of harrowing romantic encounters.
Before Claudia Shnier graced the stage to deliver an astonishing performance of Lady Grey (Dir. Zach Bush), Bayley Prendergast served an aperitif in the form of an energetic and captivating performance of Mr Theatre (Dir. Sophia Bryant). Bewitching the audience with a series of short and sweet neuroticisms, Prendergast embodied the archetypal leading man, with movement and dialogue laced perfectly with references to canonical theatrical works. Every beat and unit of the performance was thought-through and well-considered, showcasing a ricocheting repertoire of emotion. Prendergast commanded the space with a presence only seasoned performers can harness, guided by the expert direction of Sophia Bryant.
Throughout the duration of Mr Theatre, a chair draped in chains sat unaddressed in the peripheral (Sarah Amin). As Prendergast concluded his whirlwind performance, Claudia Shnier entered to deliver the main event - Lady Grey, a companion piece in a female voice. Noticeably darker in tone and aesthetics, a spacious, tinnitus-esque soundscape (Zac Saric) began infiltrating the space. Cold white light veiled the stage, throwing long black shadows behind both performer and chair (Heidi Brosnan and Mehran Mortezaei). With the metallic scrape of metal, the performance begun with Claudia Steier dragging the chair into a solitary spotlight, adjusting the chainmail like the train of a wedding dress. Taking a recognisably Romantic tableau (Diana Alvarado), the chair and Shnier’s costume (Esther Zhong) were married by silver chains around the waist and neck. What ensued was an episode of hysteria, peppered with fleeting recollections of shame, pain and paralysis.
Shneir’s performance and Bush’s direction laid a solid foundation on which Lady Grey was built. The coherence in vision and delivery was encapsulated in the integrity of all dramaturgical elements, demonstrating the strength of their co-production. It’s rare that I enjoy a production in traverse seating, but it complemented the themes so well. We were perceiving Jen, as she perceived us perceiving other audience members. It also helped that the performance was blocked so carefully within the space that there was never a blind spot or dull moment, so well done to Bush, Alvarado and Steier for bringing it all together.
Another noteworthy achievement of the production was the characterisation of Jen. It was anonymous yet identified, defined and undefined, with Steier oscillating between moments with admirable agility. The audience were invited to “fill in [their] own blanks” to truly empathise with paralysing societal pressures that Jen (or any woman) had experienced, as she grapples with “how to tell the story of [one’s] self”.
Other directorial choices created layers of theatrical inception that were carefully peeled back throughout the performance. Shakespearean references peppered in dialogue and movement (“compare me to a summer’s day”, “how to be - or not”), and shadow puppetry and silhouettes highlighted the (literal) performance of femininity. Shnier’s portrayal was uncomfortable, showing the raw breakdown of a woman under pressure as layers of reality became messier and more undefined. I felt like I should have looked away from her spectacularized destruction, but I couldn’t. As her distress reached a precipice, Jen surrenders to what she had been avoiding - becoming a “woman lying down”, with “the world… enacting its revelations on [her]”.
After Jen’s immolation, the lights faded to black and Mr Theatrical himself (Prendergast) joined Jen (Steier) on stage for a last dance. The weight of the performance was immediately lifted, with both performers gyrating carefreely to the Beach Boys’ Good Vibrations. It was the perfect end to the double bill, creating an abstract space in which Mr Theatrical and Jen might co-exist, outside of the limitations of their narratives.
Overall, Jollygood Company’s production of Eno’s Lady Grey and Mr Theatrical is a promising sign that Sydney’s independent theatre scene is starting to heal. Although the final performance of Lady Grey is scheduled for Monday 31st January, Panimo Pandemonium runs until 13th March. If you want to see more fresh and thought-provoking theatre, you should check out the line-up, buy tickets and support the recovery of Sydney’s theatre scene.