Gryphon Theatre, 22 Ghuznee Street, Wellington

27/02/2019 - 09/03/2019

NZ Fringe Festival 2019

Production Details

Tilly’s melancholy is of an exquisite quality. It is a beautiful and sexy thing, and every stranger she meets falls in love with her.

One day, inexplicably, Tilly becomes happy, and things get very strange…

Gryphon Theatre, 22 Ghuznee Street, Te Aro, Wellington
Wednesday 27 February – Saturday 9 March 2019
1st Wed-Sat, 7.30pm, Sun 3pm
Tue-Wed, 6,30pm; Thur-Sat, 7.30pm

Theatre ,

1hr 30min including interval

The pleasure of melancholy v the horror of happiness beautifully explored

Review by John Smythe 01st Mar 2019

It’s an increasingly absurdist farce – that’s the first thing you need to know, given the title. And it’s very well done, as part of the NZ Fringe by Stagecraft Theatre. Everyone is rooted in emotional truth while intermittently making direct-address statements and adopting poses that acknowledge the objective commentary. 

It’s about melancholia but we’re not talking clinical depression here. The programme note defines melancholy as “a feeling of pensive sadness, typically with no obvious cause.” American playwright Sarah Ruhl’s proposition is that even though it may have no cause, it can be a cause – in this case of falling in love; of people falling in love with the melancholic or maybe with their melancholia.

Then again, can love be said to have an obvious cause? We can attempt to explain both states of being, to psychoanalyse them, but really they just are, are they not? As for almonds …

To avoid spoilers let me just say the main cause of the ‘truth’ we live by is what we choose to believe. And of course the main cause of our engagement in theatre and enjoyment of a good play is that we choose to believe the ‘reality’ of what lies before us.

As for laughter … Suffice to say we succumb to it often as Melancholy Play plays out.

It is a mark of Helen Mackenzie’s fluid pacing unifying direction of her thoroughly committed cast, each fully immersed in their role, that we feel so free to muse on the themes Ruhl is inviting us to explore.

As we find ourselves seats in the Gryphon theatre, the cast is disported in ‘freeze-frame’ moments on Rachel Hilliar’s impressive modular set of circular rostra, backed by a wall of empty picture frames. Multi-hued lights illuminate them alternately in breathing-paced cross-fades (lighting designed by Don Blackmore; operated by Maxie Haufe and Rey Parry, who has also designed the sound).

An earnest young man – Haydn Carter, who we will come to know as Frank – proposes “a defence of melancholy”. “Lorenzo the unfeeling”, from an unspecified country in Europe – initially convincingly presented self-absorbed by Ryan Hughes – tells us how his disconcerting smile brought him to Illinois. As a psychiatrist his behaviour towards the woman on his couch it totally inappropriate …

Tilly is the character the play revolves around and Charlie Potter is exemplary in role, luxuriating just enough in her melancholia while avoiding alienating self-indulgence. It’s easy to see why it – why she, in this state – is so attractive to others. And it’s delightful to see the over-confident Lorenzo become totally (also convincingly) discombobulated.

Frank is a tailor, known to Tilly as a customer of the bank she works in. While measuring and pinning his melancholic customer’s trousers, he too succumbs: a poignantly passionate portrayal by Carter.

The hairdresser, Frances (Lydia Marston) is also mesmerised by Tilly’s melancholy. And when she brings Tilly to the home she shares with Joan, a nurse (Maisie Thursfield) – for tea and New Zealand sandwiches, no less – tensions arise as to whose affair Tilly will be. Individually and as a couple, Marston and Thursfield find just the right pitch.

No instrument conveys melancholy better than a cello and Simon McArthur accompanies the action beautifully with original music composed by himself and Dave Lisik.

Tilly’s relationships with Frank, and with Frances and Joan, bask in the exquisite suffering and beauty that is peculiar to melancholy – until Tilly becomes inexplicably happy. Or was it caused by that parlour game of Duck Duck Goose?

Act Two explores the disruptions caused by this unwelcome happiness. The colour-palate is suddenly bright. People and relationships are thrown off balance. Now it’s Frank who resorts to therapy with Lorenzo. Frances and Joan’s senses go awry. To be purposely oblique, things go a bit nuts – that is, one character does … Or does she? Or do they all?

Amid all this, Ruhl interweaves a classical comedy trope involving twins separated at birth. Had this production not believed in itself so heartily I might have been be tempted to think she had just added such plot twists to contrive dramatic structure and achieve a happy ending. But it works – and if you recoil from happy endings, well this is definitely the play for you.

This production of Melancholy Play beautifully explores the pleasure of melancholy v the horror of happiness.


Make a comment

Wellingon City Council
Aotearoa Gaming Trust
Creative NZ
Auckland City Council
Waiematā Local Board logo