The most puzzling, confounding, confronting and confusing thing about In The Next Room is its politics. Was, or is, Sarah Ruhl, the string-of-awards-winning writer, setting-out to make political statements? Mock them? What’s going on here? So let’s leave that sitting in the too-hard basket; for now, at least. Suffice to say, it was a Pulitzer finalist (not her first time), just last year, when it also garnered a Glickman, so somebody obviously thought it had more than a little something going for it.

Jacqueline McKenzie makes a welcome return to the stage as Catherine Givings, the energetic, wide-eyed, quietly neurotic doctor’s wife, as frustrated by her position in life as, probably, most women of the time. But you can’t pine for what you don’t know, so her process of discovery becomes a “dangerous” thing; an emotional grenade. She frets over not being a good mother, as breastfeeding is proving difficult and, despite her husband’s conciliatory remarks and reassurances, succumbs to the tut-tutting social pressures of the day, in feeling, as a result, like a failure. Catherine has an obvious, suppressed, artistic soul, which can only be indulged through sparkling, creative conversations with relative strangers: her husband’s patients.

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She exploits every opportunity to befriend them. She needs the company, as the committed ‘scientist’ to whom she’s married is occupied with plying his dubious trade and, when not doing so, retires to the club, to enthuse about electricity, which is brand new. McKenzie, under Pamela Rabe’s watchful directorial gaze, realises this character richly and roundly; if, at times, pacing a little too much (but maybe that was opening night nerves). We feel for her and, despite its Peter Pan-like dimensions, her on-stage personality is believable: incandescent optimism masking, even for herself, her deep and profound disappointments, in herself and her lot. Her mind is constantly trying to escape what her body can’t, seeking vicarious liberation, daydreaming, speculating and fantasising. Hers is a character almost impossible not to embrace: we’re as prone to desperation for her liberation as she.

David Roberts is Dr Givings and does a fine job of portraying the preoccupied medico who, despite his compassion and patience, remains clueless about his wife’s and all women’s needs. In him, as played, resides no hint of the evil nature of his practice, the resonances and repercussions of which echo even now.

Helen Thompson is Sabrina Daldry, a statuesque woman who discovers sexual fulfilment, in the worst possible way, or circumstances, in the good doctor’s office, thanks to his array of electrified, clitorally-stimulating contraptions. Despite her initial melancholy, anxiety and fear of treatment, she becomes an enthusiastic patient, returning for daily doses. After a time, the her threshold is higher, requiring manual ministry, from Annie, the nurse, who doesn’t seem to mind at all. (That’s your cue to make further assumptions.)

These encounters between Givings and patient proved highly entertaining, apparently, to the voluble audience. I found myself laughing along, but feeling restless, uncomfortable and guilty, at the same time, with the dawning realisation such interventions saw light of day and almost certainly became instruments for rampant exploitation of the minds and bodies of countless women.

Which brings us back to (gender) politics? What’s a nice playwright like Sarah Ruhl doing in a nether region like this? The messages, it seems to me, are hard to read; which make for interest, intrigue and healthy debate, but also allows a lot of scope for wrong conclusions to be drawn.

One of the most controversial aspects is, on my reading, much sympathy is afforded the apparently clueless doctor, who knows not what he does. He is as much a victim of (literally) exciting technology outpacing science, and ethics, as his patient, perhaps.

Marshall Napier is the practical and similarly ignorant Mr Daldry who, in a sweeping, grandiose, indiscreet, self-centred gesture, presents his difficult woman to the good doctor in the first place. Meanwhile, he has designs on the doctor’s wife. Napier, as with most of the cast, manage to put their accents in just the right place. Somehow, even his lecherous tendencies don’t detract completely from a certain charm and likability: Ruhl humanises (in the sense of forgiving sincs and foibles) all her characters, making for a level, gender-neutral interpretive playing-field. She takes no obvious sides in issues or debates inspired or inflamed. She observes, flattering our intelligence and sensibilities: she expects us to make the judgments and, presumably, silently hopes they’ll reach some semblance of higher ground.

Mandy McElhinney is a seething, combustible presence, as nurse Annie, a background character that niggles and nibbles away at one’s attention. Her moment of revelation is almost unbearably tragic McElhinney wears it exceptionally well. Black and proud housemaid and wet nurse Elizabeth is played by Sara Zwangobani. Beyond making a glaringly obvious point about being downtrodden, individually and racially, it’s hard to know why the character is so overwhelmingly testy. A little more light and shade in this reading would’ve been welcome. Josh McConville plays the free-thinking, freewheeling, but upright, fine artist, Leo Irving; a painter coming to terms with the loss of a great love and treated in an equivalent way to the doctor’s female patients, with another purpose-built machine, perhaps the antecedent of anal probes widely used by aliens.

Contraptions, set, lighting and costumes were, and are, all quite superb. Everything worked like a charm, save for a wayward cord that worked a light-switch, which came adrift and was subsequently worn by McKenzie who, happily, seemed to have a scripted exit around that time. Since the light was to be switched on and off numerous other times during the first act, she mimed the action, while co-star Roberts had the wit to snap his fingers to turn on the light. Cute. Funny. Clever.

Wittingly, or unwittingly, Ruhl has created something much more potent and questionable than the penchant for costume drama she set out to indulge, a legacy of a misspent youth, reading Austen and Bronte. She seems to me to have remained oblivious to the political ramifications of this work, such has been the focus implied in the title. She has probed, not only the vulva, or rectal passage, but all the ways in which our strange-yet-wonderful species rationalises behaviour; those in which we mask and delude, ourselves and others. And the cataclysms (as opposed to paroxysms) that arise when we shatter those boundaries.

Curtain Call rating: B+

The details: In The Next Room plays the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House until March 27. Tickets on the STC website. The show opens in Melbourne at the Sumner Theatre on April 7.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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