I’d not heard of the Ward Theatre Company, but they sent me a snail mail invitation that had black butterflies on it, so I had to see them. If sending a cute invite was all it took me to see this show, let’s hope that your reading of even this opening will make you see it.
A Death in the Family is company founder and director Wendy Ward’s adaption of James Agee’s autobiographical novel set in Tennessee in the 1915. Ward is from New York and came to Melbourne in 2010 on a Distinguished Talent visa. Agee is best known for his film criticism and was nominated for an Academy award as co-writer of the screenplay for The African Queen. A Death in the Family was published posthumously in 1957, after his death from a heart attack at 45, and won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1958.
Adapting novels for stage is very tricky. If a work of art is perfect in itself, adaption means losing much of what makes it so loved. What’s so remarkable about this adaptation is that it feels like a novel, with its slabs of narration, but still feels like it was born in a theatre. It’s a bit like film with its close focus on character and naturalistic performances, but the direct narration, multi-level space and live music (Helena Plazzer and Emma McKay) ensures that it’s a living and personal experience.
As narrator and Agee, Soren Jensen sets the gentle and loving tone and makes it feel like the author’s in the room and telling his story exactly how he remembers it. The intimacy is forced with only 20 seats in the venue – a converted warehouse is the gorgeous Cotton Mills community in Footscray (it’s worth going just to visit this space) – but it’s never uncomfortable, and with no contact from the other performers, it welcomes a closeness that doesn’t have the awkwardness of people being watched.
It’s a loving and sad story, but what makes it so exquisite is the performances. Although not in style or theme, they reminded me of the performances seen in Mike Leigh’s films, which come from no script and weeks of character development and improvisation. Ward uses theatre’s Meisner technique, which is based on improvising to bring emotional reality to a text. Each of the actors, Jensen, Darren Mort, Lee McCenaghan, Petra Glieson and Andrew McPhedran, never show they’re acting; they listen and react to those around them and show how much they are completely invested in their characters when they’re not speaking. Keep an eye on Jensen during the car scene and Glieson in a kitchen table scene near the end of the second half.
Even though they run until 25 May, there really are are only 20 seats in the theatre, so please book so you don’t miss out. I can see this work transferring to bigger venues, but the small audience lets it feel like they are there for you alone.
If I’d known it were two+plus hours, an American story with accents and slabs of narration in an inescapable venue, I may not have gone. If you hear this, don’t let pre-conceptions put you off. This is a remarkable theatre experience.