This House is Mine

Eternity Playhouse, March 13

Chris Barwick as Mack and Fabiola Meza as Clem. Photo: Patrick Boland

Chris Barwick as Mack and Fabiola Meza as Clem. Photo: Patrick Boland

For the past 15 years, Milk Crate Theatre has been working with people who have experienced homelessness and social marginalisation to create theatre that builds their confidence and helps them make positive changes in their life.

At the same time, the stories they tell, drawn from their own experiences, challenge and inform audiences by putting a human face to social issues so many of us in Australia are lucky enough to have only read about.

This House is Mine, presented by Milk Crate in association with Darlinghurst Theatre Company, began with discussions around the complex issues surrounding homelessness, with mental health emerging as a theme that participants wanted to explore. (According to the program there are more than 20,000 homeless people in Sydney on any given night).

On paper, This House of Mine sounds like a tough night at the theatre – and it certainly doesn’t pull any punches. But it’s an absorbing, poignant piece with laughter, tears and tenderness as well as darkness and brutality, and it speaks with a great sense of shared humanity.

Written by Maree Freeman, the artistic director of the company, and directed by Paige Rattray, the play weaves a web of stories performed by six people from Milk Crate’s ensemble of more than 40, along with one professional actor (young NIDA graduate Contessa Treffone).

In between scenes, other members of the Milk Crate community talk in video interviews about their experiences and perspectives on the issues raised.

Matthias Nudl as Jason. Photo: Patrick Boland

Matthias Nudl as Jason. Photo: Patrick Boland

Entering the theatre, there’s a line of chairs on stage, a TV monitor to the right of the stage, and some sliding screens at the back (set design by Hugh O’Connor). It looks as though it might be one of those pieces of verbatim theatre, where the performers essentially sit and talk but it’s not like that at all.

Rattray’s staging is simple but effective as the stories unfold, using the screens to create different spaces, with video imagery (designed by Sarah Emery with Sean Bacon as consultant) giving us an insight into the turmoil within the minds of some of the characters.  Tom Hogan’s sound and Ross Graham’s lighting help create a strong sense of mood.

The play begins with two characters standing facing each other while their phone conversation is relayed in voice-over. Evelyn (Veronica Flynn) is worried about Jason (Matthias Nudl) who suffers from depression.

John McDonnell as Frank and Veronica Flynn as Evelyn. Photo: Patrick Boland

John McDonnell as Frank and Veronica Flynn as Evelyn. Photo: Patrick Boland

From there we meet Frank (John McDonnell), a gentle psychiatrist with a wild shock of hair who is in the early stages of dementia and will soon have lost touch with reality. The final scenes between him and the spirited, motor-mouthed Evelyn, who is his daughter, are terribly moving.

There’s also Clem (Fabiola Meza), the abused wife of Mack (Chris Barwick), whose moods swing violently, and Clem’s estranged daughter Brooke (Rach Williams) who can’t understand why her mother doesn’t leave.

Brooke, who not surprisingly finds relationships hard, is living with girlfriend Anna (Treffone), who is initially a livewire then descends into schizophrenia.

The lack of acting technique among the cast actually adds to the feeling of authenticity. All the performers are convincing, drawing us into their respective character’s stories. The scenes of domestic violence between Meza and Barwick feel particularly, chillingly believable, while Treffone handles the difficult role of Anna with subtlety.

Contessa Treffone as Anna and Rach Williams as Brooke. Photo: Patrick Boland

Contessa Treffone as Anna and Rach Williams as Brooke. Photo: Patrick Boland

This is My House is powerful and empowering theatre. Told with disarming honesty, it feels raw and real and very moving.

After the final performance on March 22, there will be a post-show panel discussion hosted by Milk Crate in partnership with the St James Ethics Centre. Entitled Breaking the Cycle: Why does homelessness still exist?, moderator Dr Simon Longstaff, Executive Director of St James Ethics Centre and panelists Katherine McKernan, CEO of Homelessness NSW, Ronni Khan, CEO of Ozharvest, Steven Persson, CEO of The Big Issue, Toby Hall Group CEO of St Vincent’s Health Australia, and Milk Crate Theatre ensemble artists will explore how they, as a community, move forward to break the cycle of intergenerational disadvantage.

This House is Mine runs at the Darlinghurst Theatre Company until March 22. Bookings: www.darlinghursttheatre.com or 02 8356 9987.

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The Maids review

Isabelle Huppert and Cate Blanchett. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Isabelle Huppert and Cate Blanchett. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

The starry line-up of Cate Blanchett, Isabelle Huppert and Elizabeth Debicki in Sydney Theatre Company’s production of The Maids is one of the most glittering pieces of casting seen on the Sydney stage for a while.

The vehicle that brings them together, meanwhile, is a dark, challenging, existential play.

Written in 1947 by French playwright Jean Genet, The Maids was inspired by a notorious, real-life case in 1933 when two sisters working as servants in Le Mans brutally murdered their mistress and her daughter. Discovered naked in bed together with the murder weapons, they immediately confessed.

In the play, two maids play a sadistic, sexualised, ritual game in which they act out the roles of servant and dominating employer and fantasise about killing their mistress. Reality and fantasy slip and slide in a play with layer upon layer of role-playing.

On this particular day, Claire (Blanchett) is playing the role of the mistress, while her older sister Solange (Huppert) plays Claire. An alarm clock from the kitchen sits on the bedside table to warn them of the impending arrival of their mistress (Debicki).

Director Benedict Andrews uses a muscular, new translation by himself and Andrew Upton, which feels contemporary yet true to the play, while the glossy, stylised production features several of his directorial signatures: glass walls and cameras feeding live footage onto a large screen.

Designer Alice Babidge transforms the stage into an opulent boudoir with a long rack of elegant couture, a bed, dressing table and hundreds of flowers in vases all over the room, with fake flowers underlining the theme of artifice.

The walls act as mirrors but through them we glimpse camera operators. The video (designed by Sean Bacon) gives us close-ups of the actors and brief scenes from a bathroom behind the main room but also picks out details like a knocked-over vase or rubber gloves lying on the bed. At times it’s distracting but overall it works, enhancing the intimacy of the play in the large theatre and the sense of voyeurism.

Andrews does a great job of mining the dark humour in the play and genuinely jolts you at times (think spit, profanities and toilet scenes).

The three actors respond to his vision with deeply committed, heightened performances.

Blanchett is remarkable, mercurial and fearless as she swans around histrionically in the guise of the mistress, then slumps back into Claire’s slutty, bitter anger and despair at her dead-end life. Holding nothing back, she seems genuinely spent at the curtain call.

The petite Huppert is more wry, playful and laissez-faire as Solange in a highly physical performance that sees her doing pull-ups from the clothes rack, pumping her legs on the bed and moving in a jerky, girlish fashion. However, her strong French accent has you straining to understand her at times, particularly when she speaks quickly. In a wordy play where the language and what they say is so important, it’s problematic.

Though both Blanchett and Huppert are individually terrific, the relationship between the two maids as co-dependent sisters doesn’t feel entirely believable.

Elizabeth Debicki and Cate Blanchett.  Photo: Lisa Tomaetti

Elizabeth Debicki and Cate Blanchett. Photo: Lisa Tomaetti

In the smaller role of the mistress, the statuesque Debicki (a 22-year old newcomer fresh from playing Jordan Baker in Baz Luhrmann’s film The Great Gatsby) holds her own. Flouncing in like a celebrity used to the glare of the paparazzi flashbulbs, she captures the character’s skittish, careless, preening, self-regarding behaviour as she gushes over the maids one minute and barely knows one from the other the next.

The mistress is play-acting herself: playing at being the authoritative mistress as well as the devoted, suffering wife whose husband has been arrested. Debicki feels very young for the role and pushes close to farce as the mistress dashes off to see her husband but it’s a mesmerising performance by an actor we will doubtless be seeing a great deal more of.

But for all the passion on stage, I watched the production dispassionately, almost forensically without being sucked into the play. I felt totally disconnected from it. Perhaps that’s what Andrews wants; Genet certainly doesn’t invite an emotional response but I suspect it’s partly the theatre too, which feels very large for such an intimate piece.

Nonetheless, it’s a fascinating production of an intriguing play with some very fine acting.

Sydney Theatre until July 20

An edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on June 16