My theatre buddy had it right. Emerging from Sydney Theatre Company’s The Splinter, at Wharf 1, he reached for a cinematic parallel, comparing the effect of Hilary Bell’s play to, say, a classic Hitchcock. Like any good psychological drama, The Splinter is, necessarily, somewhat nebulous, a little inscrutable, open to speculation and interpretation. It is, depending on one’s reading of it, pregnant with metaphor and allegory; full of possibilities. So, if you’ll permit me (just try stopping me), I’ll proceed to indulge.
The Splinter is, perhaps first and foremost, an absorbing and exceedingly well-wrought ghost story. It has the fabric, the aesthetic, the cloying intimacy of a Rear Window but, at the same time, you know there’s a vast, foreboding dangerous world out there. Is it safer to stay in with the torment of your own thoughts, or venture out and risk who knows what?
Renee Mulder’s design is probably the first thing we notice. A lamp without a shade exudes eery glare, rather than light. Poo-brown patterned carpet is a reminder of the dark interiors (sometimes, dark in more ways than one) of so many established suburban homes. Olive green drapes and a reliable old armchair are about the only other features.
There’s palpable anxiety in the mother and father. They’ve been married for 10 years, but trauma has taken its toll. We’re not imagining the distance that’s opened up between them, even if they’re trying to deny it, so they’ve some shred of continuity, stability and security to hang onto. The father is especially anxious. They rationalise they’re thoughts and feelings as best they can and (barely) manage to convince each other they’re relieved and happy.
After nine months missing, five-year-old daughter Laura has returned. They don’t know where she’s been, what’s happened to her, or who she was with. For the time being at least, they’ve decided to let sleeping dogs lie. Maybe for her sake. Probably for their own. They teeter on the brink of meltdown. After nine months living on a thread, it’s beginning to show the strain. It may not hold them up much longer. Nine months seems to be the gestation period in which continuous trauma takes hold, puts down roots, fertilises itself and grows, like a cancer, refusing to succumb to any and all attempts at eradication from the psyche.
Laura is different. No more tanties. She won’t eat her favourite; tomato soup. She throws her prized toys over the cliff. She won’t talk. She’s especially apprehensive around her father, who can’t deal with her withdrawal. Like some Newtonian law, the change in her changes them all.
All of this, though influenced and informed by fictional sources as disparate as Hans Christian Andersen’s darkly dialectical fairytale The Snow Queen (even Laura’s doll is named Gerda and it’s the oblique source of the play’s title), and Henry James’ novella The Turn Of The Screw, a state-of-the-art ghost story, is based, to some extent, of real-life accounts of missing children and the impacts on those left in their wake, who describe abject terror, rather than sadness, and high anxiety to the point where ‘you can never breathe out’. Inasmuch, it’s a fascinating experiment in marrying the documentary with drama.
At some point in the process, puppeteer Alice Osborne was recruited to the inner creative circle and its her movement direction (not to mention the big-headed puppets themselves, animated all-too-convincingly, by Kate Worsley and Julia Ohannessian) that brings much of the magic, made complete by Emily Maguire’s composition, Steve Francis’ spooky sound design and Damien Cooper’s Stygian lighting.
Screw has been the more direct fictional influence, both in the play’s development and direction. Sarah Goodes, who has those reins, has quoted James at his most poetic, describing his approach to penning his famous supernatural thriller: “The strange and sinister embroidered on the very type of the normal and easy.” (Come to think of it, this is the point at and way in which all things weird, wonderful, or evil, take hold.) This couple and their daughter were, apparently, the very type of the normal and easy. But no longer. They’re desiccated. It’s a cautionary tale, reminding us not to be smug about our position in or hold upon life; it can be wiped away in the blink of an eye. There are trolls under every bridge we cross.
It’s hard to know if any of these people are alive or dead. Spiritually, if you will, they’ve passed away, so their mortality is somewhat inconsequential and academic. The collective Thomsons — Erik and Helen (no relation) — are devastatingly effective as the parents. Erik’s calibration of anxiety mounting to madness can be felt as much as seen. Helen’s adoption of relative, antidotal calm a credible reaction. Occasionally, they trade places, which only but adds to the authenticity. Goodes betrays a virtuosic directorial touch in drawing these performances out.
The Splinter comes at an interesting time, with Face To Face ”now screening”, just up the road. Both have a European sensibility. Face by dint of its Bergman birthright; Splinter via Andersen and the dark, blackly afforested underpinnings of European children’s literature more generally. Of the two, Splinter brings the shards of the Australian experience to bear more successfully.
It isn’t a ‘big’ production; everything about it is understated and low-key, but I’m confident it will stand as one of the best of 2012.
The details: The Splinter plays STC’s Wharf 1 until September 15. Tickets on the company website.