Wednesday 17 May 2023

MARIE ANTIONETTE: Theatre Review

WHAT: Marie Antionette
WHEN: 11 - 20 May, 2023
WHERE: The MUST Space
WRITTEN BY: David Adjmi
DIRECTED BY: Annabelle Wemyss
SET BY: Suba Selvarajan
COSTUMES BY: Marni McCubbin
PERFORMED BY: Felicity Barrow, Luca Edwards, Tash Frost, Yemaya Greenwood, Bella Kourdoulos, Marlley McNamara, Esther Penman, Elena Ruefenacht, and Lindy Zurbos, 
LIGHTING BY: Nicolani Susanto
SOUND BY: Roni Corby
STAGE MANAGED BY: Jay Seow

Felicity Barrow and Elena Ruefenacht - photo by Julia Kaddatz

If you like your theatre full of high wigs and great coats, Clayton is the place to go. MUST is presenting David Adjmi's Marie Antionette and the court of Louis XVI never looked so good.

The play Marie Antionette is a kind of snapshot precis of the life and experiences of Marie Antionette from a few years after the coronation of Louis XVI. It is important to note this play is fiction, so it is dangerous to take it too literally although it does hit most of the high points of the generally known bullet points surrounding the endless downward spiral of Marie Antionette's public image and, in the end, her life.

Marie Antionette was married to Louis at the age of 14. The marriage failed to be properly consummated for 8 years and, as is the fate of all women in the era of Christendom, her fate was to become the poster child for all of the ills and failures of the Crown. Rumours spread that she was barren (until she finally started bearing children), and then that she was promiscuous and/or homosexual. She was blamed for bankrupting the treasury, controlling her husband, and betraying France in favour of her native Austria. In truth there was never anything she could do that would have ever been able to overcome the Eve spin machine. 

Despite some factual errors (it is accepted that Louis did not have phimosis, he just didn't know how to 'do' sex, for example), Adjmi's play gets us through the main points of the story. He even manages to layer in some real nuance in his writing of the character. It is a shame neither Annabelle Wemyss (director), nor Felicity Barrow (Marie Antoinette) were able to find the depth and complexity available to them in the writing. 

Don't get me wrong. This production does an excellent job of playing the text of the play. On the other hand, the subtext has been completely overlooked which leaves this Antionette to be a frivolous little brat who is, in turns annoying, frustrating, and pathetic.I will say Barrow does hit amazing heights in the second act when she finally allows her character to grow up... a bit.

I say this because, right from the start Adjmi has Marie Antionette telling us she feels hemmed in. She talks about every wall being a mirror and tells us she is watched all the time. She is always dreaming of Austria - longing for home, friends and family. Adjmi is telling us she is already psychologically climbing the walls looking for a way out or a way to stay in - thus the outrageous indulgences.

There is so much opportunity across all of the text for that character to show us the dualism of the dilettante facade hiding the misery of a lonely trapped little girl lost in a world of indulgence and intrigue. I admit to never wanting to see that petulant pout which was permanently tattooed on Barrow's face ever again. I think Wemyss and Barrow have allowed themselves to indulge in the reputation of Marie Antionette rather than bothering to do enough dramaturgy to find out who she possibly might have been. No woman who lived the life Marie Antionette could possibly be that puerile.

This production of Marie Antionette has some really strong theatrical elements, though. It looks good and sounds great. Suba Selvarajan's set is imposing yet simple and Nicolani Susanto's lights do the job. Marni McCubbin's costumes steal the show, being severely deconstructed versions of Marie Antionette's chemise a la reine and the justeaucorps. Roni Corby's sound design is the real life and heart of the show though. The throbbing segues between the scenes kept the show moving ever forward towards it's ominous outcome whilst lifting the energy and denying any flagging of vitality between scenes.

The one great failure of production is the final moments in both acts. Those intense full stops written by Adjmi fall into an abyss in this production. Something big and different and marked needs to happen to distinguish these points from the all of the ones which come before so that the audience understand it is finished. It can be done with lighting or sound. Wemyss needs to harness the creative options at her finger tips much more strongly to craft the shape of those moments for the audience. This includes what the actor is doing.

Everyone who is not Marie Antionette in this show is a support player and they all generally do their job well. There is little room for full character development and they all establish themselves clearly from the moment they step on stage which is great. Yes, I looooove Sheep (Esther Penman). That is inevitable. 

On a personal note I am disappointed that with such amazing talent evident in cast members such as Tash Frost (Revolutionary) and Lindy Zurbos (multiple characters), it was a skinny girl who got the lead role. I mention this because Marie Antionette stacked on the weight after bearing children so this play would have been a great opportunity to break that leading lady stereotype. In a play which openly breaks down gender constructs it is a shame to see that other traditional tropes are still in play.

This review probably sounds grumpier than I mean it to. I did enjoy this production of Marie Antionette. It has so much going for it and the play moves quickly despite being 2 acts. It is just a bit held back by what I assume is the youth and inexperience of the lead creatives, which is entirely understandable but just a little bit frustrating. My inner feminist got a bit disappointed, but the outer theatre goer in me had a really great time.

3.5 stars

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