Thursday, 17 October 2019

Savannah Bay - Theatre Review

What: Savannah Bay
When: 17 - 27 October 2019
Where: La Mama Courthouse
Written by: Maguerite Duras
Directed by: Laurence Strangio
Performed by: Brenda Palmer and Annie Thorold
Lighting by: Clare Springett
Stage managed by: Julian Adams
Brenda Palmer and Annie Thorold - photo by Jack Dixon Gunn
In a lovely programming curation, La Mama is presenting Duras' Savannah Bay alongside The Disappearing Trilogy for the rest of October. Both plays look at the disappearing actress and in the case of this play, the disappearance comes through time and dementia.

The play gets it's name from a mythical bay in Siam where the lead character (Palmer) supposedly made a film (of the same name) with Henry Fonda. The play is about love and death and connections lost. It is told through the portal of a woman at the end of her life, a point where you can choose to forget but you can't choose what you remember.

Duras was obsessed with broken love and death and spurred by Edith Piaf's Les Mots d'Amour, she has spun a tone poem tale of great passions and great despair, a tale shared by an aging woman and her granddaughter who is forced to watch as the memories wash away like the ebb tide. Memories and connections recede just like the sea waters on the white rock the old lady has become.

The play begins with a young woman (Thorold) visiting an old lady. They share the song and the young woman tries to encourage the older one to share her stories - perhaps desperate to stay connected as the threads of memory fray dangerously. One of the intriguing questions left lingering by this play is does the older woman even want to remember and is it fair to make her do it?

The great strength of Strangio's production (director) is the great affection, delicacy and care with which the younger woman treats the aging diva. Palmer presents a feisty, if failing, old lady, but Thorold's tenderness is a thing of absolute beauty. In a world were we are engaged in a Royal Commission into the care of the elderly, this production of Savannah Bay is a portrait of just how to care for our senior citizens regardless of your relationship to them.

Duras is not a realist writer and this is perhaps the place where this production falls down a wee bit for me. It may be a fault in the translation (Duras wrote in French) but regardless of whether the tone poem is recognised there are some key motifs in her writing which I feel have been ignored.

A savannah is also the word used for a sub-tropical grassy plain with sparse trees, just as sparse as the memories the old lady is able to link together. The text is also repetitious, washing backwards and forwards like the waves in the ocean. The whole thing is made to sit on the stage and in our ears and our minds like an impressionist painting - indistinct yet clearly pointing to something, some moment(s), some time(s). It is no coincidence that Thailand is referred to as Siam despite the script having been written in 1982...

The play also switches between the women in the room, and the women as actors. The line is constantly being blurred between representation and presentation. Again, the 'acting' presence was, for the most part, ignored in favour of keeping us in the here and now. None of these omissions diminish the beauty of this production, but perhaps they deny us the full impact of the pain so abundant in the script? It also would have made the marriage between The Disappearing Trilogy and Savannah Bay so much stronger and more poignant for those who choose to see both works in tandem.

Having said that, this production of Savannah Bay is really beautiful. Palmer is delightfully feisty and sad and contrary in that way that older people become, and Thorold demonstrates such a beautiful depth of love and quiet despair as she tries to hold on to the lady who is slipping away from her.

3 Stars

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