thoughts and frustrations on Melbourne theatre through bright young eyes

Review of The Country, Tabard Theatre

I was absolutely devastated to have missed Katie Mitchell directing Martin Crimp’s latest, The City, at the Royal Court Theatre. While I consoled myself with a copy of the script, subsequently drenching it in tears thereby making it almost entirely unreadable, I decided that having traveled halfway round the world I would have my Crimp from London yet. Luckily enough, the internet led me to Tabard Theatre, perched over a small bar and cobbled courtyard in Turnham Green, a thirty-minute tube ride away from the city centre. As one of only six in a theatre for about fifty (London too has suffered from a decline in numbers at their theatres, although the scale is hardly comparable to Australia) I was able to experience the companion play to The City, The Country.

My adoration of Martin Crimp is something I do not attempt to hide, and yet I’ve always struggled with The Country; unlike Attempts on Her Life where he denotes speakers with dashes, and Fewer Emergencies where he gives us numbers, in The Country (and again in The City) he returns to character. Except, the characters are never quite characters in the naturalistic sense, bar that they have names. You never quite know when it’s the writer, the character, or perhaps someone else – the play? – speaking. You also never know if you can trust what it is that they’re saying. The extent to which these competing ‘character’ presences in the text are balanced is largely a directorial decision and, in true Crimpian style, there is very little direction to be found in the pages of the script. This leaves a big challenge for director Simon Godwin who approaches the play with a stripped back naturalism, softening the silences and the edginess of the dialogue, letting it slip into a disturbing murmur.

In The Country, middle-aged doctor Richard and his wife Corinne have relocated from the city to attempt to find some peace and quiet and to rebuild their relationship. Old wounds are reopened, however, when Richard brings home an unconscious girl, Rebecca, whom he claims he has found by the side of the road. He puts her to bed in his upstairs guest room. As the night progresses, Corinne leaves and Rebecca descends the staircase, we begin to question not only what is holding Richard and Corrinne together, but the layers of ambiguity, history, truths and lies in each of their gestures and in every word.

Godwin’s naturalistic take on the tension certainly gives it a different, though no less tense, presence in the theatre than I had imagined it off the page. His interpretation of Rebecca, however, as a gutsy, in-your-face American is rather literal and misjudged; part of the enjoyment of the text on the page is grappling with Rebecca as a character or a construct of Richard’s imagination; and the actor is a little too intense at times, running over some of Crimp’s prose in an attempt to build ‘anger’. The performances from Richard and Corrinne are both excellent, particularly Corrinne’s monologue in the third act set a few months later on her birthday, realised with mature, restrained poignancy.

A solid, if safe reading of a challenging play, the only real let down with Tabard Theatre’s The Country would be related to its production values; a very uninspired use of set and lighting, and an exceptionally literal (almost to the point of self-reflective) soundtrack of Hitchcock strings. While certainly on the right track, a little more engagement with the layers of Crimp’s text may have led Godwin to make some more refined decisions.

The Country ran from June 4 to June 20, Tabard Theatre.

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