A convincingly horripilant piece of Australian gothic from Nathaniel Moncrieff, directed by Yvonne Virsik and produced by “Melbourne’s theatre of new writing”, MKA.
In this, the first production of their first season, MKA has assembled a really strong team which, true to the company motto, really does put the writing front and centre. What we get from Virsik is a noticeably cadenced treatment of the Moncrief’s script. The drama is carefully ravelled and the tone is even throughout; the pace is measured and the delivery uncluttered. For better and worse, we get a true feeling for the grain of Moncreiff’s writing.
Mostly it is for the better. The plotting is especially wicked. It opens with Eleanor (Kiloran Hiscok) braining her sister’s pet chicken with a hammer. Her behaviour doesn’t substantially improve from there.
Her dad, Tom (Daniel Frederiksen), is a depressed old soak. Her younger sister, Genevieve (Emily Wheaton), is crippled and confined to a wheelchair. Together the three live on an isolated property outside of a small country town. The shack they live in is coming apart, and so, it seems, is everything else: strange calls in the night, visitants, revenants…
Australian gothic is a fascinating genre. Is it even a genre? Undoubtedly it is; but it is a genre with a soft middle. It lacks, I think, a strong archetype to orientate it. Rather than being grounded in a coherent body of references and tropes, the works that we call “Australian gothic” tend to be eclectic amalgams of international influences.
They lean heavily on either the English tradition of gothic romance or on American gothic, and especially the kind of writing described as “Southern Gothic”. So, for instance, on the romance side, we get Australian works featuring supernatural events, children lost in the bush, women in white gowns “floating” through the deadwood and enormous “bushfire moons”.
But then we also get tales of gritty fringe dwellers, characters up to no good, inbred, hard-bitten, shifty-eyed folk whose thinking on life is all askew. This is the American influence. Between these two influences the genre is stretched, and I think that, as a genre, has lacked something because of it.
There is a third strain of Australian gothic, one which is less developed but more promising, a native version suggested, in fact, by Albert Tucker in his painting called “Australian Gothic”. The painting is described by Janine Burke in her biography of Tucker: three desperate gamblers in profile, harshly lit from overheard.
This is the genre that focuses on gamblers, depressives, widowers, dipsomaniacs, victims of natural disaster, of fire, flood or drought, men or women who have worked since they were 13, but who are now worn down. Harsh people made harsh by the harshness of the country and the harshness of life. It is, in short, Albert Tucker, sunk in his gothic gloom, his misogyny and xenophobia, asking again and again, as described by Burke: “Why did she leave me?”
So, right, but Moncrieff’s take on the genre is interesting, because, in his three central characters we find the personification of all three “types” of the genre: Eleanor, the nasty, independent spirit, straight out of Flannery O’Connor; Genevieve, the innocent one, pure of heart, but crippled and haunted by her dead mother, straight out of Daphne du Maurier; and Tom, the depressed and drunkard father, a spiritless native.
At times, Virsik’s treatment of this material seems too gentle. There are a few lines and exchanges that I felt needed to have been chewed up a bit more viciously — a stiffness in the delivery which suggested the page being put before the stage. Also, at an hour-and-a-half, there could possibly have been a few truncations that might have tightened the sense of unease.
The cast, which is practically all-star, is good, but, again, perhaps too gentle, perhaps undershooting their performances, not quite going far enough to suggest instability.
The actual experience of being in the theatre itself is quite special. The MKA team and especially set designer David Samuels have done an excellent job of transforming what is, essentially, an office space, into a splinter of rural Western Australia.
The details: Sleepyhead plays a space in Prahran (Level 1, 211 Chapel Street) until May 28. Tickets on the company website.