REVIEW: The Story of Mary Maclane By Herself | Griffin Theatre, Sydney
Bojana Novakovic’s The Story of Mary Maclane By Herself is as haphazard as the apparently erratic life of its real-life subject. Methinks the talented Boj, who I’ve long admired as both actor and writer, wants this to be a piece de resistance but, while it has flashes of intense brilliance, is colourful, characterful and quirky (how could it not be with Tim Rogers as co-star and co-writer of songs and incidental music) and a few arresting scenes worthy of a ‘bravo!’ in themselves, it emerges as a work not completely resolved. Of course, it’s not the first and very far from the worst recent example of a play crying out for more intensive (dare I say ‘decent’) dramaturgy.
One wonders, at the end, ‘why?’ What was the point? Where was it, or is it, going? What can we take away? These are generic questions, of course, and ones which, admittedly, are of debatable validity. But one does tend to ask; at least in the private sanctum of one’s mind. You may wonder who Maclane is. Or was. You wouldn’t be Robinson Crusoe. Suffice to say she was something of a proto-feminist; a confessional diarist a long way from Samuel Pepys. She was outraged and angered by the hypocrisy of her age and, almost certainly, would feel similarly about this, or any age.
Her strategy for dealing with this frustration was to desanctify almost everything held in high esteem by her peers and elders; not least among these Christianity. Of course, even amid the likely chinwagging and naysaying, her writings, pioneering in the genre of autobiography, were immensely popular. Everyone, after all, loves and laps up a scandal. She would be a woman for our time, as much as her own; a bisexual best-seller and, in terms of feminism, a kind of hyper-Germaine, in the heady days before Greer made asides about the PM’s butt. Even a photographic portrait of her seems to betray her wanton wildness.
Boj seems to draw a few parallels between Miss (she detested ‘Ms’, at least according to Novakovic) Maclane and herself. There’s even a point at which Rogers recites entries from her own (real or contrived) diary: deeply personal allusions to depression and despair, anger, frustration and an obsessive relationship with food. One assumes Boj (and possibly director, Tanya Goldberg, Boj’s ‘other half’ in production company Ride On Theatre) finds some convergences, intersections and touchpoints of identification with Mary Mac, born 130-odd years ago. I can only but hope Boj is nowhere near as fatalistic as Mary, who careened headlong to an early death, at 48, like some prehistoric rockstar. Mac, in turn, identified with a roughly contemporary Ukrainian diarist, in Marie Bashkirtseff who famously rated dogs above men.
Boj has locked onto Maclane’s fiery style and personality, as well as her appetite for excitement: “I should like a new man to come; a perfect villain to come and fascinate me.” Much is made of her fantastical fascination with The Devil. Indeed, Novakovic rollicks and frolics, froths and bubbles, toils and troubles as the temperamental, unpredictable Mary Mac. I found myself thoroughly engaged and a little restless; by turns while, again, I tried to get a fix on where we were going and why. But perhaps I was preoccupied with the wrong questions.
In the end, The Story can’t really hope to be anything more than a vividly idiosyncratic, impressionistic sketch of and homage to its subject, as she might’ve been. Proclaimed as “bold and magical”, it has some franchise on both qualities, but inconsistently so. In its lesser moments, it’s boisterous and energetic to no good purpose. Yet there are scenes which one might single out for Bojana’s cv as concrete testament to a shimmering ability as an actor.
Rogers isn’t an actor (his bio describes him as a “prancing satyr”, which seems most apt), but has enough chutzpah and charisma to carry his somewhat nebulous role, as a kind of roving minstrel-narrator, rather well. Somewhat surprisingly, his voice isn’t always so well-harnessed in his speaking parts, sometimes lacking diction and, all-in-all, he doesn’t look overly confident. Mind you, to the best of my knowledge this is his first acting gig and it was (only) opening night, so let’s cut him some slack. His capacity for musical reinvention has been tested and proven ample, once again, as he takes on period eccentricities which really couldn’t be further removed from his solo or You Am I output. In fact, it’s worth going for the music alone.
Anna Cordingley’s design (despite her sprawling, ‘ooh-ah!’ resume, it’s her first outing for Griffin) deserves a nod, especially her costumery, which really helps wind back the clock and recast our minds to early 19th-century Americana. Blues-rooter Andy Baylor and blessed cheesemaker Mark Harris make for terrific sidekicks to Rogers; not only musically, but comedically.
The impression Ride On co-artistic directors Novakovic and Goldberg claim Maclane first had on them was “immediate, direct and bizarre”. The work that’s resulted might be described similarly, as against resolved, cohesive and memorable. Mocking notions of dramatic trajectory don’t help, even if the spirit of parody is completely consistent with the subject at hand. I’d a sense the dynamic duo (for they are that) are angling for this to be their breakthrough work. It’s not. Quite. Yet. But there isn’t such a long way to go.
They’ve talent in spades. Grit and determination. But a little patience and more painstaking and, at the same time, ruthless engagement with the text will go a long way. More haste, less speed?
The details: The Story of Mary Maclane By Herself plays Griffin’s SBW Stables Theatre until May 12. Tickets on the company website.