Catherine is living the in shadow of her father, Robert, a mathematical genius, who has recently died. David Auburn’s Proof is an exploration of her grief, his mental illness and what Catherine might have inherited from Robert: his genius, his mental illness or both.
Proof premiered at the Manhattan Theatre Club in 2000 and later transfered to Broadway (starring Mary Louise Parker as Catherine), winning the Tony Award for Best Play and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It ran on the West End in 2002 and was later adapated into a film, starring Gwyneth Paltrow.
The above suggests that Proof is probably a good play. It might even be a great play. But there’s very little evidence of that in Artefact Theatre’s production, currently running at the Alex Theatre in St Kilda.
This was the first show I’ve seen at the Alex Theatre, which used to be the George Cinema – and that is problem number one. The space is not conducive to intimate theatre. I was in the third row and felt like the performers were too far away. The acoustics are terrible, which I might have been willing to accept as a limitation of the space alone – but in a troubling choice by the director (Emily O’Brien-Brown), the actors were fixed on the stage facing each other most of the time, so there was little opportunity to project.
I don’t know how the audience at the back could have heard the dialogue, let alone engaged with the performances. Anyone upstairs in the balcony/mezzanine must have felt like they were watching through fog or glass. If companies are going to keep using this space for theatre, they need to mic actors.
And if the sound was the first problem, the LED lighting grid made the show feel flat and cold. The choice to blackout after every scene (which invited polite clapping every time) also interrupted the flow of the piece; especially the elongated moments when one or other member of the cast took too much time to change from one costume to the next.
Actor Mark Yeates, who plays Hal, Robert’s protege and later boyfriend to Catherine, is the founder of Artefact Theatre Co. Yeates equips himself well in this supporting role, bringing a charm to the young man who worshipped Robert and must challenge Catherine about the authorship of a mathematical proof he assumed her father left behind. Hal, as a character, starts out as a bit of a cliche, but Yeates finds a way to put in a performance worth watching.
The rest of the cast suffers in this space and from the poor directorial choices. Anna Burgess’s Claire (Catherine’s sister) is a bright light, challenging everyone around her. But there’s only so much she can do in a production that rarely found the intimacy it needed and when it did, couldn’t project it or relay it to the audience.
I like to support new theatre spaces and new theatre companies. Yeates says his company’s name is derived from the idea that “theatre leaves something behind with an audience”. Sadly, the main thing this production left me with was disappointment. Artefact’s Proof adds up to very little.