Writer, actor and creator Caroline Lee remains an unmissable force in independent theatre. Stripped is a solo performance about the nakedness and exposure of death that strips away the pretence of performance to its core of raw emotion.
Working with her long-time collaborator and director Laurence Strangio and lighting designer Paul Jackson, this is Lee’s stage adaption of the novel she started when studying Professional Writing at RMIT, and which was serialised in Meanjin and supported by the Marion Eldridge Award and City of Melbourne’s arts grants.
Told through interconnecting first-person narratives, it starts as Lillian, a lawyer, is dying from cancer and her sister Sophie, a stripper, faces her own trauma. It’s a fascinating adaption that left me wanting to read the novel.
As the writer, Lee’s performance comes from such a closeness to her characters that she can concentrate on the subtleties that let her share this deep understanding with the audience, and Strangio shapes the story and brings a physicality that embodies the driving emotion of each scene.
On a coffin-sized light box stage, Lee evokes Melbourne from an inner-city strip club to Chadstone (where no one want to die). Lit mostly from below, Jackson’s lighting exposes the human without the niceties of make up and flattering light (think what you look like with a torch under your face) which continues to bring the internal to the surface.
Yet, for all its heartfelt intelligence and emotional rawness, the text is distracting. Eyes and ears process language so differently and what is exquisite on a page can seem forced on the stage, as we don’t need the descriptive adverbs and gorgeous metaphors to create the world or show reaction. There’s a moment when a character says “I walked gingerly” and my inner editor grabbed her red pen; telling what we can see takes away from the character and brings too much attention back to the words.
Lee writes stunning words, but stage stories are driven by emotion, and another edit to tighten will free its characters even more, while the words still shine in print.