Thursday 26 October 2023

MINUSONESISTER: Theatre Review

WHAT: MinusOneSister
WHEN: 17 - 21 October 2023
WHERE: Theatre Works (Explosives Factory)
WRITTEN BY: Anna Barnes
DIRECTED BY: Marni Mount
DESIGNED BY: Jodi Hope
LIGHTING BY: Tom Vulcan
COMPOSITION & SOUND DESIGN BY: Ethan Hunter
PERFORMED BY: Miela Anich, Damon Baudin, Shontane Farmer, Maiah Stewardson
STAGE MANAGED BY: Ella Campbell

Maiah Stewardson, Shontane Farmer, and Miela Anich - photo supplied

Melbourne Fringe 2023 has been an amazing blend of all the styles and modes of performance you could possibly think of. I have only been able to see the tiniest fraction, and the Festival finished for my at The Explosives Factory watching Doublebluff Theatre's presentation of MinusOneSister.

MinusOneSister, written by Anna Barnes back in 2013, won the Patrick White Playwright's Award that year and has had several seasons across Australia since then. Earlier this year, as part of the coursework for her Masters in Directing at VCA, director Marni Mount staged this play and the team were so pleased they found a way to do a return season in the Fringe Festival.

MinusOneSister sits of the architecture of the Greek tragedy (as written by Sophocles) Electra. In Sophocle's Electra, Clytemnestra kills her husband Agamemnon for sacrificing her daughter Iphigenia in order that the fleet could sail to Troy and bring back Helen. You may remember the production Cygnets in this very same theatre earlier this year, which was a retelling of the Helen/Clytemnestra relationship. 

Iphigenia (Miela Anich) had 3 siblings - Electra (Maiah Stewardson), Chrysothem (Shontane Farmer), and the son Orestes (Damon Baudin). In Sophocles' telling of the story, Electra was traumatised by the death of Agamemnon and Orestes was sent away. Both plotted revenge and eventually came together to make it happen. The spur for the play for Barnes was the question of why couldn't Electra kill her mother herself? Why did she have to get Orestes to do it for her? Whilst I think there is no real reason, and that Electra was just a vehicle for the patriarchal story it can be fun to ponder such questions.

Trying to tell the tale through a modern lens (because apparently we can't just tell modern stories), Barnes has placed the family somewhere in Australia and embellished it with social media, eating disorders, and boardrooms. To channel the chorus, the story is told by all four characters intermingling lines and subject tenses which gives it an intriguingly cubist construct. 

Whilst the play has a lot of impact, riffing on violence in its various forms including rape, homicide, bullying, eating disorders, etc. it is not a specific retelling of Electra. In fact, in the course of filling in unknown and unknowable details I felt like Barnes replaced the sacrifice of Iphigenia with the abduction of Helen when she was a little girl. It probably doesn't matter. It is all fiction and there are no IP concerns lol. To be honest, I love that it doesn't shy away from exposing the violence. There is too much of that in theatre IMO.

As I mentioned earlier, MinusOneSister is directed by Mount who you may remember from the blockbuster Trophy Boys earlier this year. This play is another 4-hander and Mount plays with the actors in the space - a traditional end stage this time - with as much skill and creativity as the earlier play. Unfortunately, the structure of the text in this play doesn't really allow the audience in through the cracks to explore emotion so sadly the impact is not quite there.

Jodi Hunter's set is stunning and incredibly clever and versatile (even if she did miss the cubist gift in the writing). The stage is all white with only the grain in the marble flooring intimating the cracks which will tear this family apart. This tale has a lot of blood, but you are left to stain the whiteness in your mind as the story progresses. The pastel colours of the costumes refuse to interfere with the work our imagination is doing as the family retell/witness/report/experience the events under examination. 

Tom Vulcan's lighting has the occasional literal moment, but most of his creativity lies in shadow play and the furnishing are created and then recreated and then recreated again. Normally I hate this much fiddliness with set, but the design and direction make it work incredibly well. Ethan Hunter's sound is good, but perhaps not quite the driving force he created for Bleached earlier this year.

The acting ensemble is excellent. Stewardson gives us a surprisingly strong and confident Electra considering her incarceration for an eating disorder. Perhaps a touch more vulnerability would have allowed us to care for her a bit more. Anich, as the minusonesister, has an intriguing presence throughout. Farmer is intriguing as the little known sister Chrysothem and also does a great job in a cameo as Clytemnestra. 

Baudin won me over very unexpectedly as Orestes. Within going into childishness, this "baby CEO" presented an innocent blank slate the story wrote itself onto. Whilst I think the story got silly when Orestes is sent to an overseas boarding school, Baudin maintains his character's visage and growth until the ultimate moment of tragedian inevitability. The play goes into an epilogue but it doesn't reference anything from the Oresteia which was a bit disappointing.

MinusOneSister is an interesting play using interesting storytelling techniques. This production is excellent on all levels and is only let down by the problems in the script. I hope this team comes together again soon with a script which will really let them all sing!

4.5 Stars

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