By Megan Mitchell
I went into Savannah Bay knowing almost nothing about the play, other than it centred around two women, one older and one younger. A quick Google beforehand told me very little, and the programme was mostly information on the cast and crew. After having seen the play, it is clear why a synopsis wouldn’t really be useful.
At the beginning, we are introduced to Madeleine, an ageing actress whose memory is unreliable and in-decline. A Young Woman, whose relationship with Madeleine is never specified (but assumed to be her granddaughter), spends the play coaxing stories from Madeleine. It is clear that she is familiar with these memories, from when the older woman’s faculties were more lucid, and is able to prompt her when the details get hazy or distorted. The director, Laurence Strangio, works with a minimal set, informative costume and simple blocking, allowing the two women’s performances to be the focus.
The structure of the play is deliberately loose, swimming in and out of fantasy, memory and reality with ease. The premise created by French playwright, Marguerite Duras, allowed for a fascinating examination of life and love, which produce both profound exploration as well as occasionally pretentious dialogue. I heard murmurs of confusion after the show, and while complete understanding is not necessary for a piece to be impactful, I would have liked a little more structure or resolution. Of course, there were some heartfelt moments as well; one particularly well-delivered phrase made the woman behind me gasp.
As the play unfolds, it becomes evident that Madeleine’s memory is almost entirely unreliable, and from then on the audience is forced to question every detail she shares. Because she has difficulty distinguishing between events that happened in her life, on stage, and in film, every fact delivered from then on could as equally be true as not.
Madeleine, portrayed by Brenda Palmer, owns her story within the show. From the opening, in which she sits, utterly absorbed in her inner workings, we are utterly absorbed in her. She effortlessly exists both in the present and in her memories, surprising the audience with her recollections and mood shifts. Her performance feels very lived in and unselfconscious, exhibited best by the gorgeous sequences of dressing and undressing that bookend the play.
I was particularly impressed by her wonderfully resonant voice, which supported her character’s history as a ‘theatre actress’. The only times I disengaged with her work were usually during the humorous lines, which were delivered more like punch-lines than an extension of dialogue.
The Young Woman, played by Annie Thorold, had some lovely moments as well, but when sharing the stage with an actress like Palmer, often struggled to match her presence. Thorold expressed reverence and affection for Madeleine very well physically, however the vocal and emotional choices made by either her or Strangio seemed to undermine this.
There was a general wash of frustration in The Young Woman’s handling of Madeleine, as opposed to the gentleness, patience and care required by this sort of relationship. The play was written in a broadly philosophical way and the dialogue primarily serves Madeleine and her story. Because of the absence of a rich and nuanced relationship provided by the text, it was unclear what The Young Woman was getting out of the entire interaction and why she remained. At times it felt like Thorold focused inward too much, and on creating an emotional journey for herself instead of fleshing out their relationship.
Overall, Duras, Strangio, Palmer and Thorold have delivered a quintessentially European, ponderous, unusual piece of theatre that left me with more questions than I started with, and thoroughly pleased about it. If theatre has still got you thinking about it days later, I think it is well worth seeing.
All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.