At the start of Alexander Zeldin’s new play Alice, an elderly woman played by Amelda Brown, reflects on her unremarkable life. ‘I am not interesting. I have nothing of interest to tell,’ she says.
What follows is two hours of recollection that span eight decades and multiple countries. They are ordinary memories from a life of relative unimportance. But dreary? Never. Written with staggering hyper-realness and dialogue that sounds acutely instinctive, ‘The Confessions’ stretches out to delicately mark the capacity for cruelty, selfishness and determination we all have as human beings.
‘The Confessions’ follows writer and director Zeldin’s Inequalities trilogy which explored the damning effects of austerity in Britain. His new production, which had its premiere at Vienna’s Festwochen in June this year, is just as unflinching, heartfelt and worthwhile. Based on conversations Zeldin had with his mother during lockdown, his play tells the story of a woman who came of age during Australia’s repressive post-war years, and tracks her gradual growth in strength and move to start a family in England.
From an initial 2021 setting, we’re transported back to Alice’s youth. A thick red velvet curtain is pulled back to reveal her younger self – remarkably embodied by Eryn Jean Norvill at first with shaky apprehension and then with stoicism. After failing her exams, Alice is convinced by her parents to marry Graham, a naval officer. But really, she wants to immerse herself in art and academia. Her marriage warps to become controlling, spiteful and cold, but Alice eventually finds the language to resist her husband’s demands for children. She move out of their shared home, and leaves him.
Accompanied by a score of magnitude composed by Yannis Philippakis of Foals, Alice’s small world is broken forcefully apart. The set is ripped at its seams and in comes a new, different habitat. In Melbourne, Alice shares a flat with some creatively minded friends and embarks on a tumultuous open relationship with a professor. But, Zeldin’s play really comes alight when the past and present morph to become one.
As the older Alice, Amelda Brown is ever-present: wise and pained. Always observing, reliving and feeling, she stands at the sidelines as a (mostly) silent witness. She shakes, visibly, at her life’s past horrors; laughs in roaring joy; smiles with pride. Then, at the play’s dramatic centre, Brown physically recalls her past as she takes the shape of her younger incarnation as she confronts an artist who has sexually assaulted her. Throughout it all, the potency of reminiscence bubbles.
Every choice in Zeldin’s twirling episodic history is deliberate. A sexual assault occurs unseen and offstage, yet we wait and sit in throbbing silence while it happens. Time is always ticking, slowly, forwards – and the whole time the inevitability of mortality is there. This is a play that reflects life’s great tragedies, everyday aches and excruciating losses. But, though Alice’s journey is difficult and netted with hurt, Zeldin’s script never demands sympathy.
This is simply a presentation of one existence, albeit so beautifully crafted it can’t help but sting.