Circa Two, Circa Theatre, 1 Taranaki St, Waterfront, Wellington

23/01/2010 - 20/02/2010

Production Details

“The ONLY preparation for marriage IS marriage” – Isabel Ninety 

The New Zealand premiere of a funny, sharp, and touching new play from one of Australia’s most successful playwrights starts the new 2010 season at CIRCA Theatre.

Isabel just wants ninety minutes.

William and Isabel were once married, but something happened. Something broke deep down in the mechanism of their lives together and, seeing no way to repair it, they threw it away.

But perhaps they were too hasty.

Soon William will be married again, so ninety minutes is all Isabel has to make her case. Ninety to remember what they had. Ninety to regain what was lost. Just ninety to rediscover love or call it a day, forever.

“Witty. Wise. Perceptive. Heartbreaking. …the words, the ideas, shine … a genuinely moving piece of theatre” – Australian Stage 

“Smith writes plenty of whip-smart dialogue … compelling” – Herald Sun

“This is a great success that is as moving as it is enlightening” – Sunday Herald Sun

Joanna Murray-Smith is one of Australia’s leading playwrights whose works have been received with acclaim in Australia, Europe, UK and USA. Her plays Bombshells, Honour and Female of the Species have all enjoyed seasons on London’s West End with Female of the Species being nominated for an Olivier Award for Best Comedy 2009.

Ninety premiered at Melbourne Theatre Company in 2008. Artistic director Simon Phillips, who has worked with Joanna over several years and premiered many of her plays says, “She seems to have in equal measure the ability to write searching relationship dramas and very vigorous comedies of ideas. Ninety is a combination of the two areas. You get little arcs that are terrifically funny and then land down on these very tenderly written pieces examining the relationship.

"One of the things I find most compelling in her scripts is I feel like there’s nothing that doesn’t stand the test of time. You can hear the work again and again. She has an innate sense of poetry in her writing."

Renowned British director, Trevor Nunn, who asked Murray-Smith to adapt the Ingmar Bergman film Scenes from a Marriage for his stage production, links her personality to her writing: "It’s clear Joanna writes so well about contemporary people because she participates in everything. She’s the opposite of the writer in the ivory tower. She so often gives you the feeling that her plays come from the inside looking out, and not the more analytical and manipulatory process of observing from the outside."

Joanna Murray-Smith, when talking about her writing says, "I’m very interested in the idea of love and long-term relationships and the collusion that happens between people in staying together. Allowing each other a certain amount of self-delusion, making a pact to be silent about certain things, seeing in each other things that no one else sees."

For the two actors starring in Circa’s production of Ninety, the authenticity of the play makes it a joy to work on.

Michele Amas, winner of best Supporting Actor for her role in Rock ‘n’ Roll at Circa last year plays Isabel. She says, “After a year of doing five plays back to back (something I haven’t done since my 20s) I never imagined I would choose to work Christmas and New Year and forgo a holiday, but when I read the script I couldn’t let it go. I had to do it. The characters are so real to me and so true to my experience of life I couldn’t bear that people wouldn’t get to experience it unless we did it! And as rehearsals progress, I feel more and more intoxicated with the beauty of this script.”

Andrew Foster, who was head of Radio Drama at Radio NZ, plays William. He says, “I have really enjoyed rehearsing Ninety. Murray-Smith’s writing is incredibly challenging for an actor, bristling with sophisticated rhythmic and emotional movement. Yet the humanity in this script feels so real, and so baldly honest, that one can have that rare feeling of being carried along by the truth and forget any notion of acting at all.”

“Joanna Murray-Smith has a gift for comedy and a flair for intimate drama that gets under the skin” – The Age

“The quality of her work … transcends national boundaries in its acute exploration of the psychological states that determine social outcomes.” – The Age

“(Joanna Murray-Smith is) a thoughtful, deeply probing playwright and one of the country’s finest.” – The Sydney Morning Herald

Murray-Smith has Oscar Wilde’s gift for one-liners” – Daily Mail UK

at Circa Two
23rd January – 20th February 2010
$20 PREVIEW: Friday 22nd January – 7.30pm
$20 SUNDAY SPECIAL: 24th January – 4.30pm

Performance times:
Tuesday to Saturday – 7.30pm
Sunday – 4.30pm

Ticket Prices
Adults – $38;   Concessions – $30;     Groups (6+) – $32
Friends of Circa – $28
Under 25s – $20

BOOKINGS: Circa Theatre, 1 Taranaki Street, Wellington
Phone 801 7992


Set and Lights Designed by ULLI BRIESE

1hr 30 mins

90 minutes with the ex

Review by Lynn Freeman 27th Jan 2010

Spoiler warning
The death of a child is every parent’s nightmare and that makes it potentially powerful theatre.

It’s well covered territory, including Carl Nixon’s The Raft which was seen in Wellington just last year. Australian playwright Joanna Murray-Smith takes a different tack to Nixon – here the parents have separated, as often happens, and one of them has buried their grief rather than dealing with it.
Spoiler ends

The cast of two has a monumental task. They hold the stage for 90 minutes, and must carry us with them back in time in between sparring in the present. Murray-Smith has Isabel (Michele Amas) summon her ex – William (Andrew Foster) – to her art studio for a 90 minute conversation, before his wedding to a much younger woman. She’s up front, she misses him and questions his motives for taking a trophy wife. He’s up front, he doesn’t love Isabel any more, he’s intoxicated with the fame he’s found as an actor.

So what are her motives? Not what we may think. Gradually, she tries to strip away the protective layers of pretence.

It’s that façade that makes him unlikable at the start – too loud, too cynical, too egotistic, too fake. How could she have loved this guy, how could she love him still?

That disbelief gives way, due largely to the compelling, emotionally truthful performance by Michele Amas. We see them as a young couple very much in love with each other and later as adoring parents. At the same time we’ve already seen where the baby’s death has lead them, to an acrimonious divorce.

The best moments between the two are often those where no words are spoken, it’s all in the look.

Susan Wilson and her cast have an overly wordy script to deal with. As William, Andrew Foster comes into his own about halfway through the play and that’s mainly because it needs pruning. The playwright’s language, to be sure, is gorgeous. This is a play which will resonate with many people.
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Compelling performances help redeem glib script

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 25th Jan 2010

Splendid performances from Michele Amas and Andrew Foster in Susan Wilson’s understated but beautifully controlled production of Australian playwright Joanna Murray-Smith’s 2008 play Ninety providea stimulating and enjoyablestart to the theatrical year at Circa.

Numbers in titles are fashionable at the moment and the ninety here refers to the ninety minutes that William, a famous Globe-winning TV star, is prepared to spend with his ex-wife, Isabel, before he sets off in his chauffeur-driven car to the airport and his wedding in Paris to a young, blonde actress.

Isabel is an art restorer – she is working on restoring a poor copy (not to mention a rather handy theatrical symbol) of van Eyck’s Arnolfini Marriage – and she is still in love with William and is determined, if not to win him back, at least to make him acknowledge that their life together cannot just be discarded and forgotten.

William is all smart, witty banter, with Wildean statements about what women want and men don’t and vice versa. Isabel gives as good as she gets in their aggressive/defensive discussions about love, sex, food and their daughter Bea. But it is all a bit too glib and smartly scripted, and it gets to be rather like an episode from Frasier when we are told that the chauffeur is reading Proust.

Scenes from their life together are played out in flashbacks most of which are set comic pieces: her seduction of William when he was her drama teacher; his funny, embarrassing and unusual proposal of marriage; his description of coping with a sick, crying Bea about which Isabel has the shortest and funniest put-down line in the play.

In the last 30 minutes the play changes tack, a tack that is predictable from near the start, and if it weren’t for the compelling performances it would be hard not to believe the playwright was struggling to find a strong emotional ending, and as it is she has journeyed where other playwrights have often gone before to find one.
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A relationship that provokes us to reflect on our own

Review by John Smythe 24th Jan 2010

The ninety-minute time-limit William has put on his meeting with ex-wife Isabel, before he flies back to Paris to marry his German actress-cum-dog-walker fiancée Vera, is both a blessing and a curse in Joanna Murray-Smith’s adroitly crafted Ninety. While it ‘cuts to the chase’, dispensing with exposition (and such niceties as her offering him a drink although she sips a wine from time to time, in this production anyway), it leaves an awful lot of questions unanswered, which is not necessarily a bad thing. 

Isabel, played by Michele Amas with a contained emotional depth that keeps us guessing throughout as to exactly what she is up to, is an art restorer, working on bringing Flemish painter Jan van Eyck’s portrait of a husband and pregnant wife back to life in preparation for a private sale.

As the ex-acting teacher who has met with success in Hollywood but has yet to authentically embody himself, Andrew Foster makes splendid sense of William’s skills and shortcomings. Thankfully the symbolism of both their vocations is not over-stated.

Abetted by the deft touch of director Susan Wilson, the pair create a variously volatile, simmering and intimately tranquil chemistry that fully validates the nature of their relationship. Designer Ulli Briese’s set and lighting ensures their present encounter is effortlessly merged with their re-experiencing of key moments in their shared past.

The downward pressure the deadline puts on Isabel’s quest to lay the ghost of their five-years-gone marriage, in the face of William’s apparent indifference, infuses the play with a deep vein of dramatic energy. Because the action is driven by her need to make sense of what’s happened, much is left out of the sketched-in bits of back-stories and wider contexts. How, for example, did they relate to their respective extended families? How did he make the leap from being a drama teacher to a Hollywood screen-actor? Surely these things had an effect on their relationship too.

If we took the on-stage action as a summation of their whole relationship, we may be tempted to see Isabel and William as shallow, self-obsessed sybarites intrinsically doomed to never find lasting happiness with anyone, including themselves. But no; from the ‘book’ of their courtship, marriage, breakup and subsequent lives, Murray-Smith has plucked the passages that most encapsulate what they had, and that now raise the questions Isabel wants answered. That said, I can’t help but wonder what she may have cut to ensure the play runs 90 minutes exactly (which it does).

Both characters are adept with words. She uses them to get to the nub and heart of things, although she’s given to sweeping generalisations: “All women want / need / think / feel …” etc. Despite having won a Golden Globe (as a supporting actor, presumably), he avoids connecting with emotional truth in the real world, protecting himself with a witty cynicism. This makes for much verbal comedy of insight and anguish into the nature of male-female relationships (with much focus on sex), not to mention parenting, etc.

There are hints early on about something more profound that they’re not confronting. Our desire to know more is well provoked before it finally comes to the fore, subtly and minimally. And when it does, our understanding of what each of them truly wants and needs changes significantly. To reveal more would be a spoiler. Suffice to say there is resolution and a healing of sorts, which leaves us to ponder whether the way is now clear for their relationship to flourish anew or for them to go their separate ways.

It would be glib for the playwright to offer an answer within the prescribed 90 minutes, and neither she should. While we may conjure with the possibilities of what may happen next, in the shorter or longer terms, the immediate value this production offers is in its provocation to consider the values we bring to our own lives and relationships. A play that does that has got to be good.
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. 


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