Sylvia Keays in Blind Tasting | Ensemble Theatre

I don’t know to precisely what extent it’s biographically correct, but in her role as Sophie in Paul Gilchrist’s Blind Tasting, written and directed specifically for her, Sylvia Keays sells wine. On the phone. As you do. If you’re an actor.

As with almost any decent drop, BT has been around for a while. It’s had previous showings in Sydney, Adelaide, Melbourne and Los Angeles. As the programme reminds us, in wine there is truth. And laughter. BT is an exceptionally well-crafted telling of Sophie’s story: the highs and lows of her career, holiday and love life; all analogised to vino.

Sophie emerges onto a minimally propped stage, blindfolded. As is, from memory, typical of Gilchrist, he is wont to insinuate philosophy into the damnedest places. Here, he serves it as an aperitif:

“Habit robs us of so much. But disorient yourself and you’re forced to pay attention. Put on a blindfold and whole new vistas open up.”

The mood of BT might be as light and subtly sweet as a glass of chilled prosecco, but there are some astringent flavours too, including this restrained rally against routine and the hardening of the arteries it risks. Perhaps the fear of  it is the reason we drink wine, in which we can find virtually infinite variety. Of course, Gilchrist makes great play of the absurdity of wine language; almost another tongue. Sophie prides herself on her on and off the job acquired expertise. Given a copious sample, she’s able to identify the wine in question without the slightest hesitation:

“Shiraz. Yarra Valley. 2010. Hints of pepper and liquorice, strong flavours of ripe pears, fruitcake and strawberries, with a harmonious tannin finish. Perfect with panfried duck sausages.”

There are amusing telemarketing role plays that will be familiar to many who’ve been between “real” jobs. Or acting jobs:

“Hi, this is Sophie from CellarTasters. How are you today? I just wanted … Sophie. From CellarTasters. No. You don’t know me. Well, not personally. No, not at all, actually. Can I ask you one question? What wines are you currently enjoying? No, I don’t mean now. Yes, I know it’s 9 o’clock in the morning. I didn’t mean you were drinking now. No, I’m not saying you’re an alcoholic. Have I accepted I’m an alcoholic? No. Yes, I know acceptance is the first step. Yes. I’ll take the number down. Yes, you can ring me to see how I’m going. Any time.”

On the job, the laissez-faire Sophie meets the pedantic Kirsty, who thought that if people wanted wine, they’d just buy it:

“Which is a ridiculous attitude for someone in sales. After all, it’s the truth.”

Yes, for all his gentility, Gilchrist can bite. We learn that about all Kirsty knew about wine, and life, was “enjoy in moderation”. She was a robot. Sophie, a free spirit. Together, the unlikely friends, the odd couple, embark on a cruise. The cheap kind. The three-nights all at sea kind. A bit like going for a drive, with no real destination. The sun and sex kind. Sans sun, ’cause it rained. Which just left sex. And drinking.

“I felt like I was on Noah’s Ark. Cause of the rain. And the fact I was surrounded by a bunch of animals. Sophie also confides: I don’t mind men taking the initiative. I just object to being treated like part of the open buffet.”

Oddly, one of the most engaging aspects of the play, apart from Keays’ unflagging charisma, is Gilchrist’s penchant for the tangential. He turns what might otherwise remain a mere throwaway reference to Noah’s ark into an interrogation of the intrinsic silliness of bible stories and the credulity required to heed them, before returning to Sophie’s thought balloons about her anally retentive companion, heading off to do laps.

“In the rain. In a pool. In a boat. In an ocean.”

Sophie’s at pains to distinguish, to compare and contrast herself from Kirsty’s discipline and rigidity, to maintain the equilibrium, even on the uncertain, open sea, of her self-identification as a free spirit.

“I watch, cradling a good drop.”

After a night on the tiles, there’s this telling exchange between them:

“Kirsty says, ‘you drink too much’. And I say, ‘you swim too much’. Followed by a cruel, but incisive observation. Being on a cruise is like being held hostage in a leagues club. Believe me, there where people on the Titanic praying for an iceberg.”

But the climax comes when, at an on-board wine tasting, Sophie encounters a “beautiful guy I had no intention of enjoying in moderation”. It’s a relationship, as we learn that has legs, maturing from something fresh and zesty to a mature romance. But with that happiness, as with all happiness comes loss.

Gilchrist’s play is as much a poem; soliloquy; morality tale. It opens up the subjects of love, language and the search for meaning, holding them to the light and swirling them around in the glass. Keays’ performance is such, though, that it’s as if she owns the words; as if she wrote them I can’t imagine a stronger affinity between writer and actor.

This is no blind tasting. By the end, your eyes, as well as your other senses, will be wide open.

The details: Blind Tasting played the Ensemble Theatre on June 25 and has another performance on July 30. Tickets on the venue website.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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