Sunday 7 May 2023

THE CRITICAL MARRIAGE: Theatre Review

WHAT: The Critical Marriage
WHEN: 3 - 13 May 2023
WHERE: Gasworks (Studio Theatre)
WRITTEN BY: Mark Andrew
DIRECTED BY: Karyn Hodgkinson
DESIGNED BY: Karyn Hodgkinson and Barbara Yazbeck
PERFORMED BY: John Bolger, Ian Ferrington, Janet Watson Kruse, Eleanor MacIntyre, and Carrie Moczynski
LIGHTING BY: Natalya Shield
SOUND BY: Ethan Hunt
STAGE MANAGED BY: Barbara Yazbeck

Eleanor Macintyre - photo supplied

It is always intriguing when playwrights marry their stories to philosophical principals. In The Critical Marriage, presented by Melbourne Writers Theatre at Gasworks this week, playwright Mark Andrew does just that by juxtaposing a married for life couple of academics with philosophical mores around the divide between science and religion.

The Critical Marriage is a retrospective type of play, moving from the present where an older Imogen (Janet Watson Kruse) is dealing with the death of her soul mate Bernhard. The play shifts between different layers of the past and present as it examines motherly love, brotherly love, romantic love, and the love of God. The temporal structure is very similar to that of When The Rain Stops Falling and, just like Bovell's play, characters are depicted by younger and older actors. The Critical Marriage is, perhaps, a bit more successful at it's interweaving of temporal space but that may be because of the deft hand of the director (Karyn Hodgkinson). 

I particularly enjoyed how the characters would step out of the stage space to sit with the audience at various times, joining us in looking back at the events of the past and experience what that outside eye can reveal. This technique allows Imogen to view her love and her lover and investigate memory and truth in a parallel to younger Bernhard's (Ian Ferrington) lifelong obsession with Baudrillard and his ideas about simulcra. Whilst I wonder at how the denouement works because it implies Imogen has access to information hidden to her, it is a powerful device. It also could be a small script omission easily fixed.

This leads me to one of the most fun characters in the show, Mutti (Carrie Moczynski). Mutti is Bernhard's mother. She is aging and losing her faculties through dementia. She will outlive her son, however, and this might be the missing bit of information I just referred to. Perhaps in his absence a family secret has slipped to Imogen. Mutti is a fox obsessed, feisty senior with a slightly wicked sense of humour. Moczynski misses none of the nuance as she teases her son, testing older Bernhard's (John Bolger) patience. They share a secret just as he and Imogen share the secrect of his cancer.

The cast is a wonderful ensemble and the liveliness and hope of younger Imogen (Eleanor MacIntyre) is a delightful foil to the centred stillness of her older avatar. Younger Bernhard has a fervour and sensitivity which contrasts to older Bernhard's tired defeat. All of the questions and challenges of these relationships is gently located in an elegantly dated decor (Hodgkinson and Barbara Yazbeck) with gentle lighting (Natalya Shield) and sound (Ethan Hunt) to soothe these protagonists on their troubled journeys.

Amongst the relationships I do think some of the philosophy gets lost. In particular, I am not convinced the God versus science dualism is adequately debated. Perhaps it doesn't need to be as long as you, the audience are familiar enough with the concepts. Perhaps it is not as much of a debate as it infers it is. Most definitely in the outcomes Baudrillard seems to come out on top and the philosophy behind Anavastha is exemplified in the ending of the play despite Bernhard's rejection. 

There is reference to Pascal's Wager but there is little in the play to directly infer the practical enactment in Imogen's life - which would be the logical placement. Her entire life comes across as a deferment to Bernhard despite her saying they were intellectual sparring partners. I personally found the discussion around Pieter Bruegel The Elder's painting 'Babylon' to be unedifying.

The Critical Marriage is intriguing in its ideas and constructs although I did find myself wanting a deeper reason to tell this story in Australia right now layered into the writing and the direction. I personally think we are past the social point of intellectual curiosity for curiosity's sake. What I want is some hint of why I, in Australia in 2023, need to hear/see this undoubtedly beautiful tale set in a Berlin spanning the previous 50ish years. I am unsure why it should matter to me. Having said that, I have already clearly set my course along the Baudrillard route. Perhaps if I still felt a lack of clarity I would get more from the work.

It is sadly rare for work which challenges us in such an overt philosophical manner these days. For that reason alone I would recommend The Critical Marriage. As well, though, you will experience a beautifully produced and performed piece of theatre which will compliment deep glasses of shiraz and engaging post-show discussion. I also love this new Amethyst Award initiative by Melbourne Writers Theatre and look forward to the gems it unearths over the coming years.

3.5 Stars

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