Lennox Theatre, June 25


Where’s my hammer? Glass walls between actors and audience have plagued Sydney stages since Benedict Andrew’s malformed Belvoir production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolfe? 12 years ago. If alienating audiences is the point of theatre, then, yes, glass walls are the ultimate coup, but if engaging them seems a shrewder move, such walls are more of a coup de grace.

Director Claudia Barrie and designer Ella Butler have stuffed this National Theatre of Parramatta production of Scottish playwright Stef Smith’s Girl in the Machine into a glass box, and at a stroke robbed the play of its most crucial dimension: what it is to be human. Now, rather than being touched by the suffering of Polly (Chantelle Jamieson) and her husband Owen (Brandon McClelland), we are distanced from it: mere observers through a (slightly grubby) window, hearing the actors’ voices through a PA. In fact the aural impact was worse than the visual. The volume shot up and down like a yo-yo, as did the sound quality (with “reedy” the default setting), so some slabs of dialogue became unintelligible.

Brandon McClelland and Chantelle Jamieson. Photos: Noni Carroll.

Smith’s fascinating little play deserved better, interweaving, as it does, a broken love story with a dystopian sci-fi thriller about addiction. This addiction is to an electronic black box and accompanying headset, which offers the user narcotic-like bliss – and then a desperation for more. Owen (a nurse) gives Polly (a lawyer) the new gadget, because it has helped to calm hospital patients. Neither of them knows the sinister potential of this artificial-intelligence device.

Conceptually ingenious, the play suffers a little when Polly (as a voice-over) expresses her inner thoughts, whereupon the writing becomes mannered, self-consciously poetic, and lacks the labyrinthine quality of the way our minds really work.

Once the black box has taken control, an addled, insomniac Polly complains to Owen that she “can’t stop thinking”, the anguish of which should impale us to the back of our seats. Instead we only half feel it through the glass and bad sound. Consequently it is not easy to assess the quality of the acting. Jamieson has the strongest moments, but also the more potent role. Their performances are further undermined by a lack of chemistry that makes their characters an unconvincing couple. Perhaps this chemistry would also have percolated more without the glass.