Angelique’s mirror-world choices

Ben Brooker

Adelaide’s Her Majesty’s Theatre, built in 1913 and Australia’s last remaining Tivoli theatre, was aptly chosen for the premiere of Angelique by local all-female ensemble isthisyours?. The company, comprising graduates of the Flinders University Drama Centre, has been around for almost 10 years, producing work that is distinctively playful, audience-focused and formally experimental and staged in small venues and on the fringe festival circuit. The site-specific Angelique, however, is markedly more ambitious than the company’s previous offerings, and benefits from the scale of Her Majesty’s proscenium arch, expansive auditoria and faded elegance (the theatre is currently undergoing a major redevelopment, expected to be completed by late 2019).

As the small audience is herded into one section of the stalls by energetic ushers — who, we will learn, are integral to the performance, later assisting us at various moments to promenade through the theatre’s backstage spaces — a letter descends from the ceiling on a red ribbon, and an audience member is instructed to read it out. “Think about why you are here,” it says. “You imagine you are one thing but really you are something else.” The work’s concerns with the slipperiness of identity and the unreliability of appearances thus flagged, a scene of domestic disquiet begins to unfold on the stage against the backdrop of Jonathan Oxlade’s characteristically retro-flavoured design: big velvet drapes, daggy furniture and a large gilt mirror.

Schoolgirl Angelique (Jude Henshall) writes in her diary, mother Carole (Anna Steen) pores over an ‘improving’ book, while father George (a moustachioed Louisa Mignone) huffs and snipes ineffectually. There is an elephant in the room — the disappearance of Angelique’s sister, Evelyn — and, soon, a ‘real’ animal in the form of a blue parrot. Captured and caged, the parrot begins to speak a strange language that fascinates Angelique but seems to threaten her father, who — in a moment of rupture pitched somewhere between horror and farce, and reminiscent of Ionesco or Frisch in its darkly comic absurdity — wrings the life out of the bird. In subsequent scenes, the parrot’s spirit returns in human, English-speaking form as the flamboyant Birdy (Ellen Steele), who is like a cross between a life coach and a sleazy variety act.

It’s not easy to summarise what follows. The audience is, at first, taken backstage in two groups to view the remainder of the scene from the wings — decentralising our perspective on the unfolding family drama, and evoking for me the idea of the mind as a sort of ‘backstage’ space — and then ushered past the dressing rooms as the actors await their cues. We are led up and down various fire escapes, and return several times, at the behest of a bell, to a classroom located behind the theatre drapes, where Angelique’s teacher (Nadia Rossi) facilitates a series of student presentations responding to the theme “Your Career.” When, at the show’s dénouement, Angelique has to make her presentation, she tells us, cryptically, that she wants to be an anaesthetist. It seems partly a joke, perhaps on the conformism of her classmates, or does she just want to numb the pain — of her sister’s disappearance and her family’s slow breakdown — and continue, like everybody around her, to elide and supress? What does Angelique really want, and how can she know at an historical moment in which, as playwright Duncan Graham observes in his program note, quoting Italian theorist Bifo Berardi, “we have entered into the field of chaos” in which humans struggle to “critically decide between good and bad, between true and false.”

Audience participants, Angelique, isthisyours?, photo Cynthia Gemus

There is a stimulating, if ultimately frustrating, elusiveness in Graham’s script — co-written with isthsyours? and realised with flair by director Tessa Leong — as well as a great deal of both humour and cruelty. A critique of the hypocrisy of bourgeois values runs through several scenes, such as one in which a Dadaist, life-sized lobster is ‘painlessly’ boiled alive at a party for Angelique’s mum (the lobster, despite Carole’s assurances, screams theatrically as it dies). There are echoes of the films of Michael Haneke and Luis Buñuel, as well as Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1943 film Le Corbeau in which anonymous poison pen letters signed “The Raven” are sent to various residents of a small, unnamed French town.

Steered back out into the foyer at the end of the work, the ushers encourage us to read one of several dozen letters suspended from the ceiling on red ribbons. “Thank you,” the letters read, and tell us we have been “anxiously suspended in the mirror of [our] choices.” We are on the threshold of the world again. The blind master awaits us.

inSpace: isthisyours?, Angelique, writer Duncan Graham, director Tessa Leong, designer Jonathan Oxlade, lighting Chris Petridis, composition, sound design Alice Keath, performers Jude Henshall, Louisa Mignone, Nadia Rossi, Ellen Steele, Anna Steen; Her Majesty’s Theatre, 13-21 Oct

Top image credit: Jude Henshall, Angelique, isthisyours?, photo Cynthia Gemus


31 October 2017