Old Fitz Theatre, March 21


Finally returning to the Old Fitz held a particular joy, as if this tight little crucible is the canary in the Sydney theatre coalmine, and all’s well when it’s on the wing. This feeling was compounded when, upon entering the theatre proper, we seemed to fall through a crack in reality into a medieval morality play (with music to match), encountering a tableau of actors on Veronique Benett’s mind-bending, silver set, before a word was uttered.

Shakira Clanton. Photos: Robert Catto.

The makeup-caked actors were covered in wisps of cobweb, and, as people took their seats, Juliette, the put-upon maid (Emma O’Sullivan), meticulously de-cobwebbed them with a feather duster. This suggested the characters had long been waiting to return to (post-COVID) life, and indeed King Berenger (Jonny Hawkins) has supposedly been on the throne for centuries – if one is optimistic enough to take anyone on stage as a credible witness.

Eugene Ionesco penned his 1962 play when unwell, calling it “an apprenticeship in death”, because Berenger is told early on that his demise is imminent. The ostensibly wicked doctor (Rob Johnson) and first wife, Marguerite (Shakira Clanton), try to reconcile him to his impending doom, while his second wife, Marie (Dalara Williams), the guard (Toby Blome) and Juliette are more inclined to prop him up on pillows of false hope. Deep beneath the gaudiness, meanwhile, lies a parable about the all-too-common inability to relinquish power.

Dalara Williams and Jonny Hawkins. Photos: Robert Catto.

Megan Wilding’s production certainly looks right, but doesn’t quite sound right. The set, make-up and costumes incline one to expect a more ritualistic delivery of the lines than the overly loud attempt at naturalism we get, the upshot being that some of the play’s crazy humour flies the coop. Blome’s guard, for instance, delivers his lines as commentary, whereas the intended deadpan official announcements would be much funnier.

Berenger gives us the most relief from the hullabaloo, with Hawkins making him likable, yet not quite catching our sympathy the way, despite his egocentricity, the character should. Nor does he fade out at the end, as in the original. Wilding has a bolder political statement to make by way of a conclusion, and if the delivery can become more nuanced, less naturalistic and less shrill, it will be well worth going to find out what that is.