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Review: Solas at La Mama Theatre

Review by Thomas Gregory

Our world has a long history of children overwhelmed by the success of their parents. From being in the public eye to having expectations of greatness heaped upon their shoulders, these progenies suffer in ways many of us can only imagine. Even today, the children of celebrities struggle.

While some, like the son of Rosemary Clooney, rose to the challenge, others were not so lucky. Drug addiction, failed relationships, and an over-proportionate number of mental health challenges face them as they grow in the knowledge that people think their flawed parents "genius". They will likely forever be in their parent's shadow.

Diane Stubbings' Solas explores the tale of Lulu, a young woman who cannot escape the success of her author father. Exiled after having a breakdown and attacking her mother, she is sent to a cousin living in a remote Irish village. Her cousin is wide-eyed, innocent, and entirely nervous of the girl with a reputation for "madness". As the play progresses, the backstory of Lulu and her relationship with her father unfolds, leaving both girls traumatised by the experience.

Interactions between these two young people from different worlds highlight the overlap between expectations, trauma, and mental illness. Stubbings' play quite cleverly reflects the disintegration of Lulu, the final scenes being a series of short vignettes, ever-increasing in pace and energy, leading to a final, possibly violent conclusion.

Solas is a lesson in not wasting anything theatre has to offer. There is no element of stagecraft neglected and no moment in which something happens without necessity. No space is left unexplored, no second left wanting.

As the only two actors on stage, Tenielle Thompson and Mariska Murphy are captivating. While the script itself may draw little focus on the relationship between characters, the two actors work the stage like a well-choreographed dance, lines and movements overlapping perfectly while never being afraid to leave that all-important silence hanging when needed.

Mariska Murphy is especially well-cast. Her role could be superficially portrayed as a naive country bumpkin, but instead the actor brings an element of strength and stability to the role. Moments of controlled anger serve as a counter-argument to the tumultuous rage found in her guest. At the same time, the character's empathy never slips into ignorant pity.

Lynda Fleming's direction of Solas exposes an understanding of space held by few practitioners of the art. In the wide, shallow space that La Mama offers, no corner is left untouched, no exploration of verticality missed. Distances between the actors mean something, and no staging occurs that appears forced or unconsidered. While the practical restrictions of the venue mean this space is not always lit as most fitting the production, one would have to be actively looking for a flaw to notice it.

At the beginning of the play, we are offered a set that appears to be created only to set a scene. The three wooden chairs take centre stage, and it would be fair to barely pay attention to the coat rack in the corner, or the records beside the player in the back. As the story progresses, however, it becomes clear that nothing exists for the sake of existing, as each prop becomes essential in further illuminating the main character's downward spiral. I cannot help but pity the practitioner in charge of cleaning up at the end of night.

The only flaw to Solas can be found in its conceit, one unfortunately used front and centre in all its marketing. The story of a child tormented by both trauma and mental illness is universal, and the expectations heaped upon the children of genius one quite timely today. Sadly the play suffers by referring to a specific child, a specific genius.

The story of Lucia Joyce, daughter of the Irish novelist James Joyce, is a sad one. A competent dancer told not to follow her art, a promiscuous youth told it was a symptom of disease. Lucia was institutionalised at a young age and likely should not have been. She died decades later in a mental hospital after several failures in "treatment" (many barbaric by today's standards).

The problem with using Lucia's story for Solas is the writer's disinterest in historical truth. A woman whose mother tongue was Italian and spent most of her youth speaking Italian, French, and Russian with a strong Irish accent may be accepted. That her relationship with all family members was strained is indisputable. However, Solas takes great liberties in its fictionalisation, making claims that, if many of the represented characters were alive, would likely end in defamation suits.

It is a sadly popular "hobby" of 21st academics - to rewrite history with no evidence, including attempting to defend (or even deify) women as an over-enthusiastic attempt to make up for ignoring them for millennia. Much of this play was clearly influenced by a single author, a writer not respected by the academic community, who wrote a book filled with outlandish claims backed only by imagination. For those who know the story of Lucia Joyce, taking these fabrications spoils the very real need for us to explore the well-documented suffering that we know existed.

What is saddest about this flaw is not the lack of historical integrity. It is that the play stands so well on its own. How much better received this play if its influence was not used as its conceit? So better that I recommend seeing it without looking into poor Lucia; experience the brilliance of the production without this spectre over your head.

While only February, I am confident that Solas will turn out to be one of the theatrical hits of the year. Beautiful, painful, the play showcases the best practitioners of our country. It is not a play to be missed.

Image Supplied


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