Beauty is Difficult is difficult. And it is tempting to leave it there, as Heartbeast Vicious Theatre Ensemble’s latest production is indeed an ambitious one.
Trinity Hall in Fortitude Valley is an awesome location. Sparsely decorated and providing a spacious stage, the lofty wooden ceilings add atmosphere and an impressive, smoky lighting design by Jason Harding set expectations high from the outset. The beauty’s enter; Phedre, Hedda Gabler, Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina. Some have suggested you don’t need to know about these characters in order to enjoy the production and I have to disagree on this point. The cast play out these personalities and grabs of stories from novels that were, with the exception of Phedre, lauded as cutting-edge realist literature of their time and Director Michael Beh presents them in lush theatrical, operatic style (almost reversing the trend). In an age saturated with realism, this show is a nice deviation from the norm but without some basic knowledge of the women (easily gathered from the internet) you will miss much and be lost in the ever-switching roles.
These four women are all similar; characters created by men – with-in the text and with-out, women discontent with the roles created for them by a patriarchal society, women who dared to stray from the expectations of society and women who, driven by jealousy, love, shame and revenge took back control of their lives in the ultimate act – suicide or was it murder? The very fact that their creators, Tolstoy, Racine, Ibsen and Flaubert wrote them to suicide is ample evidence of the evil deed and says as much about these themes as the novels themselves. Beauty is Difficult is a play heavily laden with juicy ideas and could keep the friendly debates going for days afterward, so why didn’t it work for me?
There are a couple of answers to this question.
There is a strange vampire overtone to the whole production which I’m not sure was intentional. The male actors that sweep in and out of the scenes to support the beauties behave like old vamps from an eighties cult movie and although the wonderful gothic costuming and the masquerade ball complete with dancing to the depth of the smoky church hall are splendid visions, the vampire likeness makes it all just a bit silly. Hamish Nicholson (Phedre’s step son and object of desire) bears a striking resemblance to that other popular teen vampire and often looked as if he was about to eat Phedre but he was just being lusty. Rampant, clumsy moments of groping just didn’t seem to work for him. I felt uncertain during most of this production whether I was supposed to laugh or take it seriously. Adding to the woe, a motif on each occasion of a shift from one women’s story to the next is overused and repetitive. The “vampire” on the stage at that time almost hisses her name and doubles over as she arrives. Extremely effective at first as it lends itself to images of the great writer breathing life into his haunted creation but becomes irritating by the end of the show when each woman has been paraded on and off the stage numerous times over the entire duration of the play (an hour and half without interval) and each time the male character dramatically exhales her name. These things really are small issues but their overall affect on an otherwise promising production shouldn’t be discounted.
The performances were wonderful, particularly those of the actresses. Phedre (Adrienne Costello) was beautifully tragic and well played, Sherri Smith as Hedda Gabler was just gorgeous and reminded me of a gothic Cyndi Lauper (she has one hell of a tantrum voice) and Emma Bovary (Karen Dinsdale) as an empty headed beauty queen was a fabulous take on her character. Mrs Danvers (Judith Turnbull) – the manipulative overseer of all the stories was deliciously creepy and invasive but, I felt, under-used. Undoubtedly, the strongest moments were those between Anna Karenina (Anna O’Hara) and Vronsky (the talented and energetic Jason Ward Kennedy) as they play out their tragic tale at the mercy of their tragic times.
Director, Michael Beh suggests a race that pits woman against woman and story against story when discussing his production and intention.
"Each night, only one woman will die….. it will be decided by the actors on the night… of these women, who would you bid on?"
Perhaps it was due to the small audience on the night that I attended (rain to Brisbanites is like garlic to vampires), but this game was lost on me. I noticed the betting board at the entry to the hall but there was nothing or no-one there to inspire me to make a bet or to even clue me in on the game (Mrs Danvers could have done well to play with the audience here).
Beauty is Difficult is a sumptuous, theatrical production and I would love to see more of this type of theatre and indeed more of HeartBeast’s work. I can talk highly of many individual elements of this production but it didn’t live up to my expectations as a whole. I am disappointed that I didn’t walk away from Beauty is Difficult with that post-theatre contentment that a great production gives you. It reads like the type of performance that should have me raving.
Playing at Trinity Hall until July 28th, tickets can be booked through QTIX, www.qtix.com.au
$33 a ticket places this production a little on the expensive side however it should be noted that HeartBeast is not-for profit.
Parking is surprisingly ample, free after 7pm and easy to find on Church Street. The hall is well placed near the Emporium district to make it a good night out in the Valley (hello Freestyle Tout!).