thoughts and frustrations on Melbourne theatre through bright young eyes

Review of The Winterling, Red Stitch Actors Theatre

Red Stitch are carving a niche for themselves in the theatre scene south of the river. Juggling their blue-rinse subscribers and St. Kilda yuppies, the company is developing something of a predisposition, a sadly predictable penchant, for choosing plays which appear edgy and confrontational on the surface, but are really stylistically, thematically and dramatically conventional. They’re also all written by American and British men. The latest of these is Jez Butterworth’s The Winterling – a very wordy, very old-fashioned drama sheathed in a cool, British mobster aesthetic, directed by Andrew Gray. But unlike the Guy Ritchie films, the McDonagh plays and Butterworth’s first work Mojo, which all helped inspire the resurgence of the gritty, blackly comic crim in the 90s, The Winterling, first performed in London in 2006, never warms.

West (Nicholas Bell) is a gangland fugitive, now living in an abandoned farmhouse on the ghostly Dartmoor hills. Planes keep flying overhead. He is occasionally bothered by Draycott (Adrian Mulraney), a homeless bum and self-proclaimed chef, as well as Lue (Ella Caldwell), a lonely young girl who wants West to help her get away. His life seems simple enough, full of fresh air, eccentric characters, long pauses and roaring jets. That is until he loses his dog, and an ex-colleague Wally, (Steven Adams), accompanied by his poncy stepson Patsy (Martin Sharpe), turn up on his doorstep as guests with other things in mind.

Instead of attempting to replicate the pace and thrill of a gangster narrative on stage, Butterworth goes for a dialogue-driven, talking-heads drama saturated in stillness. The Winterling becomes obsessed with the power dynamics between its male characters (counterbalancing this with probably the most pathetic female character on our stages in 2008), giving each of them long, convoluted speeches and drawn-out recollections. Some are blackly funny, some are serious, some are too self-aware for their own good. The males butt heads intellectually, sparring with words, challenging each other from the comfort of their chairs, but very rarely do they take physical action. This means that the dialogue, and the play, becomes heavy and claustrophobic very quickly. While this feeling is implicit in the setting and in the substance of the text, and also endemic to the tiny Red Stitch stage, it should not be confused with genuine dramatic tension. Dramatic tension is synonymous with excitement and fear; claustrophobia is cold and uncomfortable, like a mouldy suede jacket one size too small.

Much has been made of Butterworth’s likeness to Harold Pinter, the master of tension, in the British press, but I think the comparison is unfair; Pinter is so good at constructing, and manipulating, drama and characters in such a way that the dramatic tension constantly bubbles underneath the surface, never surfacing. Butterworth, on the other hand, is not as skilful. In The Winterling, he fails to give the audience much to care about; he fails to articulate or demonstrate what is actually interesting about these characters, and what is really at stake. Rather, it seems, by setting his scenes in a pseudo-gangster style and scattering in silences between long chunks of bloated, backstory-heavy dialogue, he expects the audience will simply feel tense on their own accord. If the tension play was what Butterworth was trying to achieve, he should have taken an axe to the script and started with the entire second act. Similarly, he should have employed a dramaturg to help reshape the clunks and bumps in its overall structure and characters, and trim at least a good hour off the running time. It’s a vastly uneven, rambling script which feels progressively stale throughout its delivery; particularly at the climax of West’s encounter with Patsy and Lue.

The Winterling does, however, become more interesting outside of its one-dimensional narrative. Some early reviews from 2006 suggest that Butterworth was yet to settle on an ending for the piece, which is a little disconcerting considering the nature of the material that precedes it, but it also indicates that the gangster narrative may not be as fixed as the focus of the piece as it seems. The ending of the play as seen at Red Stitch, and fragments of dialogue and a scene before it, hint that the gangster story may have been purely incidental to what the play is actually trying to say; commentary about the state of mental illness, homelessness, and paranoia in contemporary Britain. Whether these events actually happened to West or not is thrown into doubt; however, had they not, you would feel exceptionally cheated for experiencing more than two hours of numb theatre.

Andrew Gray, in utilising an exceptionally minimal set from Peter Mumford, lights from Stelios Karagiannis and sound design from Mike Levi, obviously has faith in the weight of Butterworth’s words. However, the direction is plodding and Gray makes the audience work very hard for a conclusion which may, or may not, be there. He can’t quite harness the performances needed from his cast, although Adrian Mulraney and Steven Adams are solid in their supporting roles, and the little physical movement that Gray choreographs looks wooden and unpolished. There’s a definite awkwardness to this production. And for whatever reason, Red Stitch has once again chosen to go for a piece which demands British accents; like Motortown last year, there are some very obvious lapses.

Very little has been said about Red Stitch’s writer in residence program since its launch in mid 2007, and the sole Australian work scheduled for production in their season has been postponed. With an American social satire and a Mark Ravenhill piece on the horizon, the company keeps sourcing the same types of theatre from the same types of writers from the same places. If the kinds of numbers seen at The Winterling are repeated every night, though, it’s a winning formula for them. However, Red Stitch aren’t really a company concerned with taking risks any more; they’re more concerned with projecting the image that they are doing so.

The Winterling runs at Red Stitch Theatre, Windsor, until April 19th. See for more information and bookings.

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