Wednesday, January 30, 2013


Chelmsford Theatre Workshop at the Old Court

Lanie Robertson's 70s piece is a fictionalized treatment of a true story; the message, as so often, is that people in the past [18th century Philadelphia] had much to learn from their more civilised descendants. Not much of a basis for history, but it does make for a powerfully dramatic polemic. An unstable woman is incarcerated in an asylum, purely on the word of her husband, who, she says, is threatened by her love of life and the freedom of her mind.

Kelly McGibney's bold staging opens with the unfortunate Mary in our midst, strapped to her "tranquillizing chair". Harsh lighting spills onto the "polish of the fine wood floors". Soon she is surrounded by five Furies – other inmates or figments of her fevered imagination ? - crouched and crawling around her, cowled to hide their faces, taunting and teasing her with cruel guessing games. Excellent physical work from this ensemble, who also play key characters from Mary's back-story, as she summons them to her cell. We share her disorientation and her sensory deprivation, since the voices come from the statue-still Furies, but the action is mere shadows, excellently brought to life on a distant screen. Plato's cave, perhaps. I loved the way the Furies dissolve back down to the floor at the end of each visitation.
A challenging piece, not without its longueurs, but when taut writing and physicality come together, as in the Prayer/Key sequence, it is exciting, dangerous theatre.
Well served by a fine, mostly young, company, working hard to keep the impetus alive, with poor Mary played intelligently, touchingly, without histrionics, by Hayley Kemp, making her CTW d├ębut in this rare revival. The piece ends, provocatively, with her returning to the chair, embracing her fate, eagerly awaiting the Sabbath spectators as the church bells peal out in the darkness.
The Assistant Director was Danny Segeth, with Catherine Hitchins as Movement Consultant.

upper-arm tattoo of the Tranquillizing Chair by Jeff Johnson

1 comment:

Michael Gray said...

There was a talk back session following Friday's performance, transcribed on Twitter by Emma Moriaty.
Here's a flavour of that dialogue:
Talk back going live!
The furies and shadows are finally unmasked and introduced to the audience

Q - Why did you choose to do it in the round rather than on stage?
A - play set in round b/c we wanted the space to represent Mary’s head & the audience experience her various thoughts a la Furies

Q - what was the inspiration behind the aesthetics of the piece, the shadows etc?
Audience - respect that we never really see the characters if the shadows
A - important to see only Mary's face, she was the only real character seen by the audience
A - the progression of the play was important and to break a fury into a costumed character will stop the action and the flow
A -There is a line about viewing Mary's life as a shadow play but it was also the only way it made most sense

Q - how was it transforming into a fury?
A - once the furies got used to the initial weight and movement of the hooded cloaks the performances kept building
A - the hood automatically gets you into character, keeps you on form, there is limited sight and a natural disorientation

Shout out to the chair and all it's been through!

Q - weren't the restraints originally to stop people hurting themselves?
A - that's the modern use but Dr Rush used it to stop dreaming and hallucinations
A - restraining does still happen today and people don't always know how to deal with it or talk about it. This play highlights modern issues

Q - from audience - considerations of how mental health is treated now and then
A - The characters are real people which allowed a lot of research, real issues that still exist
A - Dr Rush thought that the chair was much more effective than the straight jacket. Danny did a lot of research into the background

The cast were also split on Mary's sanity. Kelly never said that Mary wasn't or was. Hayley herself was also undecided about Mary

Kelly - wanted to keep it neutral and open for audience interpretation, an ink blot that could highlight the different themes
A - wasn't a sadness about it as Mary embraces it and it is the sane thing to take on the insanity
A - audience is split and depends on if you believe in the furies' existence

Q - from Audience to Mary- what was it like in the chair at the start with the audience walking in?
A - privileged to have that time to get into character so deeply!
A - Apart from being scared of the dark it was useful time to get into character & the physical restraints & blindness made the focus hearing
A - From Mary - my character changes depending on how the furies were each night, slight changes. And the cue lines!

Q - what was it like for the cast descending into madness each night?
A - exhausting! Good to explore the characters & the movement, approached it like a workshop and discovering the darkness

Q - To the shadows- what was it like to create the shapes for all the different characters?
A - At first it became too stylised although beautiful it was toned down
A - Joint work between shadows and furies, letting the character develop between the two

Q - To Hayley, how was it playing Mary Girard and where was the inspiration
A - Thought about what would be enough to tip you over the edge. Also had experience of dealing with mental illness of others

Q - the pauses in the furies lines often changed the context. Was it written this way?
A - There was a full stop at the end of every fury's line, so it was really open in how each line developed

Q - To the furies - how was the challenge of the shared lines?
A - Scary at first but got into the motions when learned it in chunks & you knew which word was yours

Q - To Kelly, why did you choose to direct the play?
A - First introduced in a religious town in Arizona and was frustrated how much the play needed to be cut which diminished the depth of it
A - Passionate about the play and wanted to revisit as an adult and re-explore the themes

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