Whitireia Performance Centre, 25-27 Vivian Street, Wellington

22/06/2011 - 01/07/2011

Production Details

Closer is about sex and its salacious glory; four people who do each other, do each other over and donothing about it. Intense, funny and devastating, Closer was an immediate success following its 1997 debut, winning the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Foreign Play; the Olivier Award for Best New Play; the London Critics Circle Award for Best Play, and the Evening Standard Award for Best Comedy. This is a dark, adult-themed play, which has not been produced in Wellington in over a decade and is sure to thrill and delight.

Adapted by the playwright into the 2004 film of the same name, some may be familiar with this tale of love and sexual politics, of betrayal and honesty (or the lack thereof). Four years, four characters, four relationships and the glory of the 90scombine with designer Penny Angrick’s vision of a graffitied tube station to create a dynamic and unique interpretation, directed by Phoebe Smith.

Theatre company Imaginary Bees’ debut production ‘Skungpoomery’ at BATS Theatre was described as ‘spot on with their energy, timing, and joie de vivre’ (Laurie Atkinson, 2010). Ever ready fora challenge, Imaginary Bees have turned their comedic talents towards darker waters with their sophomoreproduction, Closer by Patrick Marber, staged at the exciting new venue of Whitireia Theatre – who have only just opened their doors to professional theatre in Wellington.

Whitireia Theatre
25-27 Vivan St, Te Aro, Wellington
Date:22 Jun 2011 1 Jul 2011
Time: 8pm

Jess Aaltonen
Dan Watterson
Tom Horder
Alison Walls

Director - Phoebe Smith
Producer - Debbie Fish
Stage Manager - Julia Campbell
Publicity -
Jennifer O'Sullivan
Graphic Design - Franc Cheetham
Set Design - Penny Angrick
Set Construction -
Penny Angrick, James Kirk, Ulli Briese 
Lighting Design -
Ulli Briese 
Lighting Operator -
Johnny Edmonds
Sound Design -
Tane Upjohn Beatson
Sound Operator -
Rosie Alldridge
Costume Design - Bailey McCormack
Make-up Artist -
Poppy Ferguson 

Struggled to care

Review by Helen Sims 24th Jun 2011

There’s a risk for a fledgling theatre company when performing a very famous play (that was turned into a very famous movie); namely that is bearing up under the weight of expectations. Closer is such a ‘very famous play’, and given the excellent advance publicity for the production, my expectations were high. 

Ambition in selecting works is to be encouraged in emerging groups like Imaginary Bees. As one character says in Closer, “Life without risk is death.” But a play like Closer is challenging for even the most experienced professional actors and directors.

By presenting Closer, Imaginary Bees has departed radically from their previous production, the exuberant Skungpoomery.  It also moves away from their mission statement of “bringing eccentric, joyful and slightly cooky theatre” to Wellington audiences.  There’s nothing eccentric or cooky about Patrick Marber’s play – if anything it is quite formally structured. And it is certainly not joyful. Marber himself has said of the play that he used a very formal structure through which difficult feelings and emotions could be conveyed: anger, lust, truth and intimacy to name but a few. 

Closer shows episodes in the tortuous relationships of four people: Alice (Jessica Aaltonen), a young self-described waif and sometime stripper with a mysterious past; Dan (Daniel Watterson), a failed writer now cynically composing newspaper obituaries; Anna (Alison Walls) a portrait photographer with a number of failed relationships under her belt; and Larry (Tom Horder), a coarse dermatologist, whose profession underlies his personal desire for/of flesh. 

The initial few scenes of the production are good. The flirtation between Alice and Dan after he comes to her rescue when she is hit by a car is well played and believable. There is a seamless transition into the next scene, which takes place roughly a year later where Anna is taking Dan’s photograph and the seeds of their affair are sown.  The energy of this scene carries through into the cyber-sex scene between Dan (pretending to be Anna) and Larry, and the meeting of Larry and Anna at the London Zoo aquarium as a result.  

These scenes contain humour and are well paced.  It’s when everything begins to fall apart in the relationships of the four characters after Anna’s exhibition that this production begins to run into difficulty.  Partially this is a fault of Marber’s text, which has been criticised for being grandiose and at times ‘plodding’. They play’s success, however, depends on chemistry between the performers and careful direction to overcome the burdensome text. On opening night this had not yet been achieved. Although the lines were clearly delivered, which in itself is an achievement, I felt that the emotional truth had not yet been captured. 

Part of the problem I suspect is in casting. Three of the four performers do not look old enough to play the characters they are cast as, so begin with that disability, which is difficult to overcome. 

Walls has an awkward physicality (especially in high heels) that undermines the cool outward confidence in Anna’s words. Aaltonen, who is physically well suited to play Alice, is engaging and gives the right blend of tough yet vulnerable needed to show her character’s journey. 

The male characters are less complex, but both Watterson and Horder look younger than it’s indicated they are and lacked depth of characterisation. 

This play throws down a significant challenge for actors. They must take characters that say and do awful things to those they purport to love and nevertheless get the audience to care enough to be interested in what happens to them. By halftime I didn’t feel any particular tension had been built up, or that I had sufficient interest in the characters to care about what happened to them, expect perhaps for Alice. Scenes in the second half often treaded a jarring line between being too low key and too hysterically emotional, resorting often to shouting.

The true stand out of the production is the set, designed by Penny Angrick. It is sparse, but allows for scenes to occur in a variety of places. Curved wooden pillars that span the breadth of the stage look like rib cage bones, and are an ever present reminder of mortality. They also resemble the frame of a ship. They do, however, create a very wide, flat space in which most of the action occurs. This often results in there being considerable distance between the actors on stage. While this reinforces their true lack of intimacy, it does exacerbate the lack of engaging chemistry between the actors. 

The excellent design extends to music (by Tane Upjohn-Beatson), lighting (Ulli Briese) and as mentioned, the publicity. 

Ultimately this production for me resembled Anna’s photographs: “a bunch of sad strangers photographed beautifully.” It looked good at first, but after the surface impression wore off, I was looking for something deeper and didn’t find it. I wasn’t engaged, so ultimately I struggled to care. 

As a fan of this play, I think Closer should ultimately leave you unsettled and questioning the nature of your own relationships. The Imaginary Bees production didn’t produce this result for me.  That said, it’s a difficult play and the company are to be congratulated for taking a risk. Although I look forward to seeing more work from Imaginary Bees, this time, however, I don’t think the risk has paid off.   
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