DAMNED GOOD, SKILFUL STORYTELLING
Written by Shelagh Stephenson
Directed by Paul McLaughlin
at Centrepoint, Palmerston North
From 9 Jun 2012 to 14 Jul 2012
Reviewed by Richard Mays, 11 Jun 2012
There is a tale about seeking enlightenment that, from memory, comes from Edward Bond's play, Narrow Road To The Deep North. It goes along the lines that a seeker after the aforementioned state sat and contemplated a stone wall for 20 or so years. At the end of that time, his enlightenment was that sitting in front of a stone wall for a couple of decades wasn't going to bring him enlightenment – or at least the kind of enlightenment he sought.
The New Zealand premiere of Enlightenment, the 2005 play by British playwright Shelagh Stephenson, launched at Palmerston North's Centrepoint Theatre, contains something of that Zen-like paradox.
“In a dark time, the eye begins to see,” is how 17th century Japanese sage and poet, Basho puts it. The question that could well arise from this might then be: “Ah, but what is there to see?” The answer, more likely than not, is something like, “the darkness.”
Paul McLaughlin's production of Enlightenment takes place in a setting that is the absolute antithesis of darkness: an enclosed blazing white ‘five-wall' box set that's three white plastered walls, a floor and, unusually, a fully closed in stage ceiling. It makes a startlingly stark and slightly claustrophobic container with one players-tunnel type entrance off to a side and a moveable arced cyclorama rear wall with cut-out window space.
It's from this already Zen-like sparseness that items like paintings, books, ornaments and furniture are progressively removed as Lia, mother of a missing 20-year-old son, desperately seeks clarity over his mysterious disappearance.
So here we have something of a whodunit, and a problem for any commentator is how much to give away? This is, after all, a New Zealand premiere and presumably other theatres around the country will be interested in producing Enlightenment if it proves to be artistically as well as economically rewarding.
It's too early of course to talk about box office, but there is certainly enough character and plot intrigue to keep performers, directors, designers and technicians, more than happy.
Something Stephenson has in her favour as a playwright is that she writes strong roles for women – as in her Olivier Award-winning dark comedy, Memory of Water from1996, where three sisters return to the family home following the death of their mother. As in that play, the principal characters of Enlightenment are trying to survive a death. In this case it's a presumed death, and Stephenson builds in thematic preoccupations with things like the reliability of memory; the fragility and malleability of truth; the afterlife'; and psychological manipulation.
McLaughlin has Kiwi-ised the script. Lia played by Jude Gibson, and her younger husband Nick, Jon Pheloung, live in Palmerston North a,nd the play easily survives its transition to upper middle class Aotearoa. Adam, Lia's son, has been missing for months – last heard from on his OE heading to Indonesia just before the Jakarta bombings. As parents they fear the worst.
So Lia calls in a no-nonsense Sensing Murder type medium played in broad pan-Tasman tones by donogh rees. The appearance of Mrs Tindle raises all those questions about how psychics operate – is she hyper sensitive to the spirit world or does she just make intelligent and observant guesses?
Lia's father Gordon, played by Stephen Gledhill, introduces Renee Sheridan's young, attractive but deeply superficial and conniving TV producer of a Missing Pieces type show. The young lady's maxim is “Sometimes you have to lie to get what you want”. It's obvious that any programme about Lia and Nick's son will be subverted by the imperatives of the electronic medium.
And then they hear news from Thailand … a young man arrives … James Winter's character is suffering from amnesia … and the descent into darkness and mind games begins.
Enlightenment milks a fragile, highly charged, highly contrived situation that is augmented by an ominous, discordant,specially created soundscape, with flickering ghostly back-projections adding to the general atmosphere of unease. As the play unfolds, the rear wall is moved forward like a large earthmoving blade, closing down the space.
Contrived it might be and slightly wordy, but despite its dark, edgy sociopathic overtones, Enlightenment is loaded with delicious ironies that prompt laughter. And it looks so good in white. While the degree of enlightenment attained is wide open to interpretation, it's an unusual story that's skilfully propelled along – especially by Gibson who is a great study in anguished grief.
There are accomplished contributions from the whole cast, and in particular from Winter and Sheridan, admirably supported by a talented production and design team.
Enlightenment boils down to well-realised, all-round damned good story-telling, and judging from opening night's prolonged applause, thoroughly deserves to do the business at the box-office.
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