Review by Susanne Dahn
We must live our lives forwards, but often we only fully understand them backwards from the vantage point of older age. Older age when the whole of our life can be framed by memories. Memories that we have both constructed and reconstructed. Reconstructed with imagination as well as with knowledge. The brain will forget, but the heart never does. The deep “ich” kann nicht vergessen.
'The Critical Marriage' is an award winning new play produced by the Melbourne Writers Theatre which has now opened at Gasworks Arts Park where it will play until 13 May.
'The Critical Marriage’ looks back on a 35 year marriage between two academics - Imogen an English behavioural economist and Bernhard a German evolutionary psychologist. They describe their marriage as critical. Critical as in ‘indispensable’ and ‘essential’ not critical as in fault finding. The only differences these two have are about religion and children. Oh and perhaps a tormenting secret.
The marriage these two create they fully own and occupy, caring deeply for each other as they work apart and together on their shared and sometimes intersecting interests. One is a person of faith leavened by intellect, the other godless yet burdened with guilt. For one the days are sunny with each wind God’s breath, for the other most days are cloudy where Pascal’s wager is shunned and it is fearful to venture far from home.
Mark Andrew won the 2023 Amethyst Award for a new play of outstanding quality, integrity and originality and it is refreshing and stimulating to enjoy a play with both emotional depth and intellectual spark. The many references and ideas peppering the script are exciting to think about, to try to digest and to weave into interesting connections and patterns. I hope Mark Andrew is encouraged to create more plays of this quality.
The play features a strongly realised performance by Janet Watson Kruse (who for nine years played Ellen Kelly at the Old Melbourne Goal) as Imogen. The older Imogen holds the audience in the calm still place of her total acceptance and understanding (which is what love is) of Bernhard. Watson Kruse is accomplished and compelling.
Dennis Coard (from Home and Away) cast as Bernhard was sadly unable to perform on opening night, though John Bolger has stepped into the role until Dennis can return. Carrie Moczynski as Bernhard’s mother Mutti also gives a fine performance capturing the character’s sorrows and frailty as well as just a little foxiness.
Eleanor MacIntyre as Young Imogen and Ian Ferrington as Young Bernhard (and other supporting roles) do well moving the story along. Mark Andrew’s extensive background as a writer is evident in the way he has created the play’s supporting characters in particular.
The play is deftly directed by Karyn Hodgkinson and holds together tightly, building both expectation and resolution. Staging by Barbara Yazbeck and lighting by Natalya Shield take full advantage of the small studio theatre space and the soundscape by Ethan Hunter reinforces many of the key references of the work.
There are a lot of big things to think about in this play not least about the nature of life and death and how humanity evolves over time.
Bernhard is conceived on his father’s leave before the father returns to die in combat on the Eastern front in the second world war. The father is unnamed and unknown yet fully alive in Bernhard’s loyalty to his Mutti and his yearning to understand life and fate and agency. People do change and Germans, of all people, know that. There are the unforgivable bad deaths and the burden of Oppenheimer and the occasional good deaths which can be the ultimate gift of love between humans.
There is ultimately no forgetting though and I suspect many aspects of this play will not quickly be forgotten by its audiences. A play like this which inspires both deep feeling and deep thinking is indeed a rare and lovely sight.