The Venetian Bride

BATS Theatre, Wellington

21/08/2007 - 01/09/2007

Production Details

Adapted by Robert Tripe from the short story by Maurice Shadbolt
Directed by Rachel More
Original Music by Gareth Farr


1930’s NZ – Rose Lightfoot, artist, spinster, breaks free from her overbearing father and sheltered life to seek artistic fulfilment in Europe. In a café in Venice she finds love, but at what cost? Rose’s intriguing story unfolds through the memories of Alice, as she helps her great nephew to understand the mysteries of his own life.

The play shifts seamlessly between the 1930’s, ’60’s and ’90’s, from New Zealand to that most romantic of cities, Venice. It touches on the idea of the kiwi “cultural cringe” and the search for our own artistic identity, but is first and foremost a story of love.

Based on a story by one of New Zealand’s most highly regarded authors, the postscript on Shadbolt’s original text indicates that the story is based on the life of the painter Ilene Dakin (nee Stichbury) and her marriage to the Canadian poet Lawrence Dakin.

This exciting new work is Robert Tripe’s first play and brings together a talented team of Wellington’s top practitioners, including Rachel More, nominated twice for best director at the Chapman Tripp Awards in 2005 and 2006, Gareth Farr, winner of most original music awards in 2000 and 2003, Helen Moulder, winner of actress of the year in 2000 and 2003, Jennifer Lal, winner of four lighting design awards, Wellington theatre stalwart and winner of several awards, Grant Tilly and Carol Smith, winner of Best Actress in 2006.

Helen Moulder, Carol Smith, Grant Tilly, Robert Tripe, Bjorg Halldorsdottir and Phil Peleton

Set Design by Brian King
Lighting Design by Jennifer Lal

Theatre ,

1hr 5 mins, no interval

May become more satisfying and engaging

Review by Melody Nixon 26th Aug 2007

The Venetian Bride opens beautifully; atmospheric live piano combines with excellently paced entrances. In the interactions of Richard (Robert Tripe) and Alice (Helen Moulder) there is a theatrical sensitivity which suggests deep understanding of space and tone. Unfortunately, this sensitivity does not always last throughout a play rich with powerful, clever storytelling but at times lacking theatrically, without a cohesive rhythm or fluidity and meter in its scene changes. And while the point of the parable-like centre story is a poignant and valuable one, it is not readily conveyed to the audience.

The play is an adaptation of a Maurice Shadbolt short story, and that author’s mastery of craft is very much apparent. The overarching tale is a multi-layered look at the nature of ‘real love,’ and the positioning of today’s romantic relationships with relationships of the early to mid-twentieth century to discover what it is that prevents us from truly loving and being loved. The final message seems to be that our selfish or idealised pursuits of what we believe will fulfill us can blind us to the beauty and strength of what is ‘right in front of us;’ and thus we can fail to understand or appreciate what will truly make us happy.

While this is one message of many the play is exploring, it is the message central to the final realisations of protagonist Richard. A modern man with two failed marriages, Richard is recounted a parable by his wise Great Aunt Alice. This parable explores the nature of “bona fide” love and throughout the narration Richard asks Alice: “Why are you telling me this? What am I supposed to be learning?” Thirty years later, and long since Alice has passed away, Richard understands what it was she was trying to impart; and this realisation is juxtaposed against the quietly tragic and ironically melancholic image of Rodin’s The Kiss; a symbol of undying love and “forever”.

Although in the penultimate scene Richard states: “So that is what [Alice] was telling me,” the way the central message relates to the story requires some probing, and the play risks coming across as an open-ended exploration rather than the parable-like tale Shadbolt intended. This is due in part to its translation on to stage; and the way in which moments of innuendo, double-meaning and insight come across as a little obscure, rather than profound or affecting. For example, in the scene where Richard visits Rose Lightfoot (Carol Smith) on her deathbed, his change in voice, tone and character come across as without pause, reflection or an understanding of the gravity of the situation. While this scene seeks to show the extent and dedication of Rose’s love for her unfaithful husband, who in essence abandoned her out of dissatisfaction with himself, the way it is played out means viewers are perhaps confused by or ambivalent to its meaning.

This said, as Richard Robert Tripe provides an all around enjoyable performance, remaining consistently modest and genuine, while adding moments of spontaneity and improvisation on the night I attended. Phil Peleton is excellent in his role as Rose’s husband, the aloof and indifferent “cultural poser” Pierre Lacroix. He manages the tall order Spanish aristocrat/Canadian/London schooled accent well, and shows us the selfish unhappiness of Lacroix while maintaining our empathy. Carol Smith smoothly taps into the loss and disempowerment of Rose, and her scenes with Bjorg Halldorsdottir (as Magda) convey a very real sense of intimacy and friendship. As the wise and wry narrator Alice, Helen Moulder is thoroughly entertaining; her movements between bossiness and sympathy provide a heartwarming, grandmotherly tone. The teasing banter between Moulder and Tripe was for me the most endearing dialogue of the play.

Each of the actors’ performances in The Venetian Bride is individually strong and engaging. It is unfortunate then, that at times these performances fail to resonate or unite to form a consistent and even tone for the play as a whole. This seemed due to the shape of the script, and the directing, which meant the interchanges between present/memory/story came across as too unnatural and alternately forced or lagging. Alice narrates the story in a mode which leaves us hanging on for more at the conclusion of each ‘past’ scene, but we are not allowed enough time or space to reflect on the story or consider what we are being told before the next scene is rushed into. This lack of sensitivity towards emotional adjustment is contrasted with, in other moments, a sense of the interchanges lagging, as actors seem uncertain of their thematic placing or the direction or impact of the scene. This too seemed to be an issue of directing; and while Rachel More’s apparently energetic, slightly bouncy style may be brilliant in some productions; in my opinion here it has created a sense of discomfort and incongruity.

The Venetian Bride is the realisation of a long dream of playwright Robert Tripe’s, and is a masterfully crafted and sensitive piece, very much the “lovely, gentle” story it is claiming to be. Perhaps throughout the season, as actors and director feel out the limits and strengths of this play, it will become more satisfying and engaging to view.

Originally published in The Lumière Reader.


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Sheer artistry

Review by John Smythe 23rd Aug 2007

If subverting expectations and taking risks makes for successful theatre, BATS is on to a winner. With a script based on a Maurice Shadbolt short story, adapted by Robert Tripe who also plays the Richard the writer alongside such mainstream luminaries as Helen Moulder, Carol Smith and Grant Tilly no less, joined by Phil Peleton and Björg Halldorsdottir, The Venetian Bride – directed by Rachel More – might have been unsurprising a Circa or Downstage. But a poignant between wars romance filtered through contemporary personal and literary angst at BATS …?

It’s the perfect rejoinder to all the chat we’ve had on this site about the need for Circa and Downstage to attract a younger demographic. This Bride should bring people to BATS who haven’t been for years, or have never been. And there’s no need for younger people to stay away, if they are of the persuasion to be interested in their parents’ / grandparents’ / great grandparents’ generations.

Given the relative youth of the dramatist and director, this may even signal a resurgence of literary theatre, concerned more with the well crafted human story elements than the marketability of its content or the theatricality of its telling. Which is not to say major value is not added by the ingenuity with which the production segues through the time and location transitions. And Gareth Farr’s simple piano pieces, played as key to a scene or incidentally in the background by almost all the cast in turn, are a delicious condiment.

Richard the writer (Tripe) was close to his newly deceased Great Aunt Alice (Moulder), whose dying wishes are regarded as somewhat eccentric by her lawyer (Halldorsdottir). He recalls how Alice, a retired lawyer herself, told him tales from her vast life experience, knowing he’d use them in his writing … From his 1990s present we return to the recent past, the 1960s and 1930s: flashbacks within flashbacks.

Because Richard has just allowed his second wife to flee the nest (one senses an autobiographical touch here from Shadbolt), a cranky Alice decides he needs to know about her client and friend, Rose Lightfoot (Smith). What emerges is a stock standard romance. Plain daughter, Rose, has lost the best years of her life looking after an ailing mother then – to the great concern of her father, Henry (Tilly) – she invests her inheritance chasing her dream of being an artist in Venice.

En route she forms a same-sex liaison with Danish-born international journalist Magda (we are left to imagine its exact nature). But in Venice, her own very real potential as an artist is subverted when she falls for the suave Pierre Lacroix (Peleton), a French-Canadian poet with Spanish heritage, educated in England.

Enigma surrounds the older Rose – long since returned to NZ, with her husband in tow – when Alice takes Richard to meet her. Points are made about how rich and fresh the resources of the South Pacific are for the creative mind compared with the ancient world (Pierre got stuck on a Pyramus and Thisbe poem), how tough it is for an outsider to break into the local literary scene, and how easy it is for him to write the gatekeepers off as mediocrities …

So what, apart from giving him material for another story, is Alice’s purpose in telling Richard about Rose? What does it have to teach him about love, at which he is such a failure? He and we are being asked to consider, it seems, whether true love is a total and abiding commitment, or a state of delusion that removes one forever from reality.

"Forever" is a key word and Rodin’s erotic sculpture The Kiss is a key symbol of the intensity of Rose’s love for Pierre – or is it more about her love of love; of loving and being loved? 

Carol Smith embodies Rose completely in all her phases, capturing the essences of an entire adult life with absolute fidelity: an impeccable performance. Phil Peleton brings exactly the right blend of dash and danger to Pierre, effectively cracking his poised veneer with one memorable outburst of anger.

Björg Halldorsdottir makes the most of her brief opportunities to personify Rose’s other special friend, Magda, and doubles well as the somewhat censorious lawyer. As Henry Lightfoot, Rose’s non-artistic father, Grant Tilly makes a welcome return to the stage, and he too doubles nicely as a doctor.

Helen Moulder is ideally cast as Alice and, with Robert Tripe’s Richard, facilitates the forward movement of the delicately crafted dramatisation with minimal fuss and a relaxed ease carried by a clear sense of purpose.

Indeed, thanks I imagine to the care that has gone into the development of the script, everyone in Rachel More’s cast is very assured in their roles and focused on the work itself, exuding a strong sense of aligned ensemble.

Brian King’s set, with a high-hung tailor’s dummy and very long white skirt as the centrepiece, lit beautifully by Jennifer Lal, is exquisite to look at while allowing for an easy flow through time and place. The Venetian blind is a nice visual pun.

And, as mentioned earlier, the solo (plus one brief duet) piano pieces created by Gareth Farr (especially for non-pianist actors to play, I’m told) combines with Caccini’s ‘Amarilli’, sung finally in rich full voices by Moulder and Tripe, to add immeasurably to the romantic tone.

The sheer artistry of this More-directed production transcends any misgivings one might have about the dated nature of the material.

BATS must be congratulated for stepping outside its ‘brand’ definition to ensure we get to enjoy it as both a play and a production. And given this has occurred because both Circa and Downstage passed on the chance to house The Venetian Bride, I’m keen to know why, and for those who have seen it to post comments as to whether it should have been taken up by either.


Anon August 25th, 2007

"Unable to discern the artistry ..." Miaow! ___________________ [This discussion has now been taken up as a forum entitled: "Vitriol versus fair comment" - JS]

John Smythe August 25th, 2007

Does reading a meal described in a restaurant review make you think you’ve eaten it, Richard MT? Given a vivid sense of what’s on offer, you can then judge whether it might be to your taste. But demanding we must all judge according to your sense of taste could be a tad arrogant, eh? If you are unable to discern the artistry in the production of a story that will appeal to many, despite being “dated”, that’s your choice and your loss.

Richard M.T. August 25th, 2007

I think no one else took it up because it's tedious and dated, and now youve givn away the whole story in your fawning review I wont be surprised if no one at all bothers to go, least of all the Circa audience. The biggest mystery is not why Circa didnt but why on earth Bats DID take it on. Agree with previous comment that reviewers should get tougher, this is supposed to be professional theatre and it just doesnt measure up.

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Intricate tale of love perfectly told

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 23rd Aug 2007

The Venetian Bride is a lovely, intricately told tale that is part memoir, part love story, and part admonition for its narrator, Richard, from his great aunt Alice about the meaning of love.

Robert Tripe’s adaptation of the Maurice Shadbolt short story moves in Rachel More’s sensitive production effortlessly back and forth in time from 1937 to 1997 and from places as far afield as Venice, Nice, London and New Zealand.

Brian King’s elegant set that smoothly adapts to a lawyer’s office, a parlour, a study, an artist’s studio, a room in a hospital, a cemetery, and a Venetian café allows the central story of the artist Rose Lightfoot to be told with clarity while it effectively hints at the periods without overstating them.

Rose, well off and nearing forty, sets sail from New Zealand in 1937, much to her father’s concern, on a Grand European Tour to absorb all the culture she can. Her father’s concerns are soon realized when she falls in love with and marries Pierre, a Spanish-Canadian and English public school educated poet. Henry Lightfoot believes he’s probably a damn dago fortune hunter and a pansy poet to boot when he discusses Rose’s situation with his lawyer Alice, hoping she can drum some sense into Rose.

Alice tells her great nephew, Richard, the story of Rose and how she eventually returned to New Zealand with Pierre, who had avoided the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War. However, Alice has more on her mind in telling the story just because he’s a novelist and the story’s a good one. She is telling the twice married Richard about a love as enduring as Rodin’s The Kiss and as heartfelt and tragic as the mythical story of Pyramus and Thisbe that Pierre writes about in his major opus.

The play brings to mind the work of Henry James and this is in part due to the work of the excellent cast who give their characters real depth. Grant Tilly, in a welcome and long overdue return to the stage, doubles in the small roles of a doctor and Rose’s conservative and concerned father, while Helen Moulder as Alice creates a warm and loving relationship with Robert Tripe’s rather too youthful Richard. Phil Peleton in another excellent performance leaves one guessing about Pierre; a smooth charmer or a lost soul?

I found that one of the pleasures of the production is that I wanted to know more about all the characters and I have gone on thinking about them long after the seventy minute play finished. Rose’s friend Magda, for instance, is, in Bjorg Halldorsdottir’s strong performance, a tantalizing figure, and so too is Rose, who has, in Carol Smith’s fine performance, all the quirky stubbornness and mystery of a soul possessed.


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