POWERFUL WRITINGS AND READINGS
TALKING OF KATHERINE MANSFIELD
Starring Catherine Downes
at Circa Two, Wellington
From 27 Feb 2013 to 16 Mar 2013
Reviewed by John Smythe, 1 Mar 2013
In this revisiting of her subject and the earlier show she inspired – The Case of Katherine Mansfield (1978), compiled almost entirely from Mansfield's own words in letters, journals and stories – Catherine Downes now talks of, and as, KM in both personal and authorial mode (ambiguity intended: both Mansfield and Downes are being personal and authorial).
Since The Case first opened, and was performed around the globe by Downes, further scholarship has revealed more of KM's short and emotionally torrid yet productive life. New elements were added for the version performed by Danielle Cormack in a Silo production (2006-07), and Fiona Samuel wrote an award-winning screenplay, Bliss (2010), drawing on more personal revelations: the fifth version of KM's life to be brought to the screen.
Downes acknowledges Samuel's Bliss but her quest in Talking of Katherine Mansfield is different. In explaining how she came to revisit the works – on being asked to contribute something to her Waiheke Island community's May Day ‘Theatres of Resistance' event – she shares her necessarily more mature appreciation of Mansfield's timeless and universal insights into the human condition.
Although her schoolgirl meeting with KM's ‘Miss Brill' had made her judge the author as rather old fashioned, being cast as Katherine in Brian McNeill's The Two Tigers in her early twenties found Downes relating strongly to Mansfield's quest for adventure, identity and authenticity: "...Risk! Risk anything! Care no more for the opinions of others, for those voices. Do the hardest thing on earth for you. Act for yourself. Face the truth..." Yet KM judged herself as having led “a very typically false life”.
Now Downes' focus is more on Mansfield's awareness of social injustice, the quest for survival in the face of insuperable odds and her own mortality. And the paradox here is that her resistance is not to her impending premature death but to succumbing to the fear of it, and to maudlin self pity.
Thus ‘The Fly' is read in the context of her brother's accidental death in France, the ‘war dead' fates of two sons in the story and the fly's persistent endeavours to recover from a series of inkblot bombardments: also a metaphor for KM's recurring illness. The old man's inability to remember what he was thinking of before he became preoccupied with ‘testing' the fly may also be seen as a comment on how history repeats itself because we forget it.
Mansfield's resistance to turning 30 when she still feels like running and jumping is beautifully expressed in ‘Bliss'. And resistance to the older generation's demand that children conform to notions of class and thus perpetuate social injustice is beautifully rendered in Downes' reading of ‘The Doll's House', which includes a blisteringly honest account of how cruel children can be to each other.
Mansfield was the mistress of the maxim “show, don't tell” and Downes followed suit with The Case of Katherine Mansfield. This time, In Talking of Katherine Mansfield incorporates quite a lot of telling, including more than one report of how her previous performances of KM's work have been “incredibly powerfully received”. This sets up a bit of a resistance in me against conforming to that established norm but in the end the subtle power of Mansfield's multi-layered writing and Downes' sensitive yet equally powerful readings work their magic.
Contextualising KM from a personal perspective that also resonates with her audience is also entirely valid (as with Miriam Margolyes' Dickens' Women).
The 80 minutes end with Mansfield's account of entering The Gurdjieff Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man, and John (Jack) Middleton Murry's account of her last moments (voice recorded by Stuart Devenie).
Sam Downes contributes subtly nuanced sound and lighting culminating in a ‘dying of the light' effect you will have to witness in the Circa Two season as it is unlikely to be possible everywhere they play in their whistle stop tour around the country with Arts On Tour New Zealand in April.
For more production details, click on the title above. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News.
See also reviews by:
Laurie Atkinson (The Dominion Post);