Everest Theatre, January 5


We tend to think of emotions as being fierce or wet, but often they are as fragile as dried flowers. British writer Dennis Kelly’s play is about what happens when the flower disintegrates. To tell the story may deny the piece its potential to make you leave the theatre a different person to the one who walked in. I’ll just say that about an hour into its 110 minutes comes the first of a series of kicks to your abdomen that will leave you winded. At best.

Only a month after Heather Mitchell’s unforgettable performance in another one-woman play, RBG: Of Many, One, comes Justine Clarke in this. Her character is given no name, but by the end we know just about everything else about her. We know she’s a funny, smart, ambitious executive in the documentary business, a mother of two young children, the wife of an antique furniture importer, and that she’s as tender as she is potty-mouthed and as well-meaning as she is flawed.

Justine Clarke. All photos: Matt Bryne.

We’ve watched several of Kelly’s early fragmentary scenes before we’re certain that Clarke is playing the same character in each, with the chronology jumping about in a way that draws us in, both to resolve our minor confusions, and because these scenes are also amusing, Clarke’s character having a wry, dismissive view of the world. Paris to her is “Leeds with wider streets”, and two gorgeous, queue-jumping models at Naples airport look like “they’ve already been airbrushed before stepping into life”. Via one-sided conversations and mimed interaction with her four-year-old boy, Danny, and his seven-year-old sister, Leanne, we see her version of the thinning patience and negotiated settlements of motherhood – settlements so hard-won that solving the Palestinian issue should seem a doddle.

It’s her unnamed husband who talks her into striking out on her own in the film business, which leads to one of the play’s great speeches about daring to do what one hasn’t done before: “You just figure stuff out,” she tells us. “You begin to realise that the terrible secret of all human endeavour might just be that it’s not really that hard.”

Eventually the skipping chronology solidifies into a cast-iron narrative, and you feel the play and Clarke’s performance shift gears. You feel the room tighten. If there are tiny holes in the fabric of her acting in the scenes with her children, you later learn why these might not be flaws. And when she has to escalate the intensity – and then compound that again and again until she has led us into a furnace of the unimaginable – she keeps rising to the challenge. By the end, you don’t have to debate whether you’ve just witnessed a performance almost as singular as Mitchell’s in its own, and perhaps even more demanding, way.

Mitchell Butel directs the production for State Theatre Company South Australia, the second time this company has featured in Sydney Festival in as many years. This, however, is a much more significant achievement than last year’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and Butel’s choreography of Clarke around Ailsa Paterson’s set (on the sizeable Everest stage) is adroit. There’s always a logic – whether physical or emotional – at work in her moves, so you’re never distracted as to why she just stood or sat, retreated to the upstage archways or came down to the footlights. Meanwhile Alan John adds the lightest of watercolour washes of music to underscore the initial blitheness and all that comes after.