Gloria

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Gloria
Photograph: Brett Boardman

Marta Dusseldorp stars as an actress losing her mind over her latest role, in a play worthy of David Lynch

Gloria, the play,is as dazzling and disparate as a smashed kaleidoscope. The second by critically acclaimed Australian director Benedict Andrews (following his divisive first outing Every Breath), it’s a glittering, catastrophic portrait of an unsettled Australian society and also the women we deify beyond reasonable human expectation. 

Gloria, the character, in a towering performance by A Place to Call Home’s Marta Dusseldorp, is a lauded, long-serving actor of the Great Roles calibre. She’s done them all. She’s a Robyn Nevin, a Pamela Rabe, a Cate Blanchett. She’s returned to the stage for a particularly gruelling work based on the real-life story of a woman who has suffered great trauma; while the play never describes it in detail, there are references to being held in a room for years, being abused by her father, and raising their children underground. The work requires such emotional rigour that Gloria must push herself aside to properly take it on.

But Gloria isn’t an empty vessel for the work. Her second husband Derek (Huw Higginson) leaves frequently on business trips, but when he is around, Gloria is distracted. She has a strained relationship with Derek’s daughter Maddie (Chloe Bayliss) and an indulgent one with her son Jared (Meyne Wyatt). She worries about how ‘big’ this upcoming acting job is and how she can do justice to such a terrible and true story. We flash back, occasionally, to her lauded turn in Medea, the dark counterbalance to her upcoming show – or does it suggest a darker fate still to come?

And all the while, storeys below the well-appointed apartment where Gloria and her family enjoy their rarified lifestyle, riots are brewing. We don’t know quite what has caused the uprising, but civil unrest is hardly a leap in 2016 Australia. Gloria barely seems to notice the flames and fighting but her children are transfixed by them. They want to fight, observe, and understand. “We’re safe here,” is all that Gloria and Derek offer in response  – so too their neighbour Cassie (Kristy Best) to her son (the role is shared by Louis Fontaine and Max Philips). They’re up high, there is security. They’re untouchable. Right? 

But no one is untouchable, and everyone is trapped.

Under the direction of Lee Lewis this collapsing star of a play falls into class divides and cultures of fear; Gloria gives herself to her role and suddenly the play breaks from reality and shifts into a backstage comedy – her family are now her co-stars, and she is the difficult actor who drinks, who may or may not be ready to perform, more a legend than a person to even those she works with. (Pierce Wilcox plays a variety of roles but his browbeaten assistant director, Kip, is especially memorable). And then the play shifts again, into an entirely new beast. Gloria is still Gloria, but everything else is different once more.

Andrews’ script is sharp and uncompromisingly intelligent, and Lewis keeps the production in a compelling limbo between realism and melodrama; the surrealism of its changing form and narrative is almost more subtext than it is anything else. Sophie Fletcher’s design, coupled especially with Luiz Pampolha’s lighting and Toby Knyvett’s audio/visual work, is unsettling; a shifting, slipping landscape that’s impossibly layered.  It’s thrilling to watch even as it’s a challenge to keep up with every new reality. There’s a rising tension that never fully dissipates, even when we’re just watching actors talk shit backstage.

There’s always something erupting just below the surface in the play (Steve Toulmin’s score captures this restless energy nicely); the rioters are a constant presence across shifting ‘realities’. As an actor, Gloria has license to cut herself off from the world, to reflect it without ever fully becoming it; to represent pain for an audience and then cast it off to return back to life. The rest of us, who hide from protests and ignore the creeping tide of change, don’t have even this flimsy excuse for remaining uninvolved. 

Gloria exposes the flimsy theatricalities of our relationships with the world. We are a part of the mess of the universe whether we like it or not. But still we seem to only perform our anger and sadness against each new injustice and, at the end of the day, lock ourselves away in our towers, where we convince ourselves we are safe, and tsk at sensational traumas on the news.

See what's on at Griffin Theatre Company in 2017.

By: Cassie Tongue

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Helen S

Brilliant! One of the most powerful plays you will ever see. Thank you to such an amazing cast of actors, but also to all involved in the production. Maybe it is the intimate space, but I don't think I've ever been to a play where the cast have invested so much emotionally. A real tour de force. Don't miss it.