Getting up close and personal with the monstrous feminine
Whoever came up with the concept of pairing director Jenny Kemp with English playwright Abi Morgan knew precisely what they were doing. Morgan’s play Splendour recently premiered in London at the Donmar Warehouse, and with its fractured, repetitive narrative structure and cool-eyed uber-rational detachment, it fits Kemp’s aesthetic perfectly.
The play takes place over the course of a single night, the dying hours of a dictatorial regime, and while it is intimately concerned with the politics of its scenario, it completely sidelines the usual subjects: the men. Micheleine [Belinda McClory] is the dictator’s wife – any dictator, anywhere – and an extraordinary portrait of corrupted femininity. She spends the final moments of her hideous reign cajoling, bullying and belittling the women who happen to surround her.
These include Genevieve [Olga Makeeva], her “best friend of 25 years”; Kathryn [Rosie Lockhart], a photo-journalist sent to photograph her husband; and Gilma [Olivia Monticciolo], a light-fingered translator from the country’s beleaguered north. In a series of iterations of a single scene, layers of cant and bluster peel off the teflon-coated Micheleine, and we begin to understand the horrific consequences of absolute power.
Morgan’s structure is intriguing rather than revelatory and, while it teases out the theme of female compromise and vulnerability in the face of brutalism, it undermines its own tension with every wipe of the narrative slate. This is not necessarily a criticism; the play has more on its mind than the merely thrilling. The emotional alienation perfectly mirrors its dark heart, which is embodied in the monstrous, electrifying Micheleine.
McClory is breathtaking in the role. Her cutthroat red dress speaks to the merciless, deadly side of her nature, and her leopard-print pumps to her coquettish, placatory side; it is a tribute to McClory’s performance that she keeps both constantly in play. She is the Eve of the temptation and the fall.
Makeeva’s portrait of resigned self-sacrifice is also very fine. Genevieve is perhaps the purest crystallisation of Morgan’s concerns, a woman powerless in the belly of the beast who nonetheless displays genuine strength of character and maternal instinct.
Lockhart’s performance is most problematic, mainly because she overplays the disgust and superiority. Kathryn is in many ways as compromised morally as Micheleine, hungrily snapping photos of death and suffering, a parasite of human misery. Her tip into outright pathos in the end also fails to convince and cuts against the icy, detached tone of the play.
On a typically minuscule budget, designer Romanie Harper does a fine job of suggesting a kind of minimalist grandeur, although the ’80s references in the furniture and props seem curiously anachronistic. Rachel Burke’s lighting and Russell Goldsmith’s sound design are both excellent, moody and sharp.
Kemp has done an admirable job in bringing this anti-dramatic, complex play to Melbourne audiences. There is a nightmarish quality to its naturalism, a kind of roiling inexorability to its repetitions, that suggests Beckett by way of Pinter, and yet stands alone as a piercing feminist provocation in its own right.