Monday 7 August 2023

THE CAVE OF SPLEEN: Theatre Review

WHAT: Cave of Spleen
WHEN: 2 - 12 August 2023
WHERE: Theatre Works (Explosive Factory)
WRITTEN BY: Laura Collins
DIRECTED BY: Stephanie Ghajar
DESIGNED BY: Fiona Macdonald
COMPOSITION & SOUND BY: Imogen Cygler and Rachel Lewindon
LIGHTING BY: Giovanna Yate Gonzalez
PERFORMED BY: Amelia Jane, Nisha Joseph, Pia O'Meadhra, and Heather Riley
STAGE MANAGED BY: Piper Knight 

Amelia Jane, Nisha Joseph, and Pia O'Meadhra - photo supplied

in 8BCE Homer wrote the epic poem Odyssey. In 8CE Ovid wrote 'Metamorphoses', another narrative epic poem. In 1712CE Alexander Pope wrote a mock epic poem called 'The Rape of The Lock'. In 2023CE Laura Collins debuts her play, The Cave of Spleen, at the Explosives Factory. What connects these four literary events?

The concept of katabasis is a journey into the underworld where secrets may be revealed which are not available to mortal men. Odysseus was directed to go down to Hades where he spoke with the ghosts of heroes of the past. In Metamorphoses, jealous of her sister, Minerva enters the cave of Envy to get revenge. In his epic parody 'The Rape of The Lock' Pope creates the cave of Spleen. Mirroring the description of Ovid's cave, within this cave lies the Queen of Spleen, languishing on a bed and tended by Pain and Megrin. The cave is populated by misshapen and miserable women (and a man who thinks he is pregnant). In the 1700's it was believed that the spleen sent vapours around the body which caused illnesses. In Pope's poem these sad and broken people were distorted and tortured due to sexual frustration - commentary of the plight of the imperfect woman at Court.

Collins has taken Pope's concept and attempted to draw a more serious analogy between her experiences with chronic pain, the climate crisis, and the continual social pressure on women be silent. Thus, four women find themselves in a cave (I am not sure why or how) and decide to use it as a base of operations to plan a social rebellion against patriarchy and climate crisis denial. They stride around railing at men and how hard it is to create social change. Each woman has different levels of activism ranging from Pia O'Meadhra's softer appeasement through to Heather Riley's radical violence.

I recently reviewed another play by Collins, Bleached, so it will be no surprise to anyone when I say the show begins with a lot of shouty, shouty words, words, words showing how angry and disempowered these women feel. Fear not, though. Under the skilful hands of Stephanie Ghajar (director), The Cave of Spleen has better dynamics and some clever choices which give the audience a way to tune out some of the excessive verbiage which is a feature of all of this current rash of eco-feminist plays which are littering Melbourne stages this year.

After the initial onslaught the women start to peel off, one by one, feeling some vertigo which turns into pain and finds them lying on the cave bed and writhing together replicating some of the images created over time from Pope's work. As Riley continues to rant and rage and plot, O'Meadhra, Amelia Jane, and Nisha Joseph recite side-affects from various medical and homeopathic treatments. Riley holds out right up to the end of the play and one of the more powerful images is Riley screaming silently at the other women as they writhe into their various poses in a dreamlike fashion.The whole thing begs the question when do we stop seeing, hearing, caring?

The performances are dynamic and it is unfortunate that the play shifts between derivative word mush, quotes from 'The Rape of The Lock', and voguing. Collins does make some good observations and has sharp and witty interjections of the cliches people spout to avoid actually having to do something about, well, anything. The problem is that in The Cave of Spleen there isn't a strong enough narrative link between the concepts of pain and climate crisis. 

Due to the non-narrative writing style the links have had to be made visually, but in my opinion what this ends up doing is creating a science fantasy world where, through a temporal and/or interdimensional portal, these modern women are overtaken by the vapours of the original Cave of Spleen and the ghosts of the pasts take over. I didn't see a connection between the physical pain being created by the continued forced silence of women and their anger over climate change. As with Bleached the call to action is missing. What am I supposed to think about or do after seeing this show? I don't know because this cluster bomb approach to all the things making these women angry leaves me in a minefield with no path out. I know all the things which are so very frustrating. I am a woman. What I need is ideas for action and The Cave of Spleen lacks those ideas.

The production elements of The Cave of Spleen are wonderful although I find myself perplexed by the fact that all of these eco-activist plays begin by polluting the air with smoke/fog/haze.  Having said that, Fiona Macdonald (designer) has created the cave with exquisite, simple elements and side from the haze (technically accurate, but conceptually curious), Giovanna Yate Gonzalez has created a powerful and driving lighting design. Rachel Lewindon and Imogen Cygler have worked together to create a wonderfully dynamic and atmospheric sound design which really helps us cut through the journey we are being taken on.

Things I love about The Cave of Spleen include the wonderfully deep literary provenance and Ghajar's control of the elements to reign in the script. As I mentioned, the show looks and sounds fantastic, and the actors do well to try and maintain some differentiation between the women. Riley's performance is powerful as the rebellious hold out. Joseph and Jane deliver some outrageous zingers cleverly crafted by Collins, and O'Meadhra fades skilfully into the Queen of Spleen. Ironically, I just feel the direct references to Pope's ideas overwhelm the connections Collins is trying to make in the here and now.

3.5 Stars

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