An ageing woman’s struggle to accept her changing status in the world is a tried (and tired) theatrical trope. When that woman is someone whose appearance is an essential part of her trade, like an actress, that stereotype gets even more hackneyed. But here’s the thing – everyone of us is susceptible to the fickle whims of our self esteem, and changes, to the way we see ourselves and how others see us, still has the power to hit us like a ton of bricks, clichéd as that truth may be.
Belvoir St Theatre’s resident director Carissa Licciardello (A Room of One’s Own) breathes a fresh take into John Cassavetes’ cult classic, ’70s cinematic hit in Opening Night, the story of an ageing actress self-combusting in the lead up to the opening of a brand new play. Licciardello’s reimagining casts Seven Types of Ambiguity star Leeanna Walsman as Myrtle, the role made famous by Geena Rowlands.
Myrtle feels at odds with the vapid character she is trying to embody, and friction heats up with director Manny (Luke Mullins) and playwright Sarah (Toni Scanlan), who seem unable to give her much more to work with. The Myrtle created by Licciardello and Walsman is not a vapid, glass smashing diva. She is a respected actress and a consummate professional with a varied career, probably not unlike Walsman’s own career (her extensive career in film, theatre and television includes hallmarks like Looking for Alibrandi and Star Wars: Attack of the Clones). Walsom portrays a quietly frantic woman who is unaware of the ways in which her mind is escaping her until the darkness swallows her whole. Does her character in the play really lack depth, or is Myrtle so unwilling to see what she has in common with a woman desperate to cling to the excitement of her youth?
A tangled web is woven as the action moves between Myrtle’s reality, the play she is rehearsing, then performing, and the troubled fantasies her mind takes her to. The result is a satisfyingly baffling experience for the audience, injected with genuine surprises, terror, and thrills.
The script, reworked from Cassavetes’ original 1997 screenplay, evokes knowing laughs about clueless sexist directors, insensitive writers, demanding actresses, competitive costars and fizzled old flames. This reworking positions the trope of the ageing star to reclaim some power and dignity that women are often denied as society gaslights them about their own experience. However, the plot merely scratches the surface of deeper issues, like domestic violence and how it is depicted, not sinking its teeth far enough into any topic it touches to give a profound or new perspective. On the contrary, the simplicity of the story is satisfying in its own way, and it acts as a vessel for an effective and exciting use of theatrical magic (at one point, you might think that a thunderstorm has actually collapsed the ceiling of the theatre).
The lighting design, by the masterful Nick Schlieper, creates a lurid and alluring atmosphere in which the action can play out. A plume of smoke from a cigarette forms a lingering grey cloud above its smoker, awash in a blue haze; a flash of light implies a dramatic car crash; an enveloping mist swells into a pounding wall of water; a troubled woman is suddenly shocked from fantasy back into reality with a change of lighting. By contrast, David Fleisher’s set design is stripped back yet effective, enabling the muddling confusion between what happens on stage, what happens back at Myrtle’s hotel room, and what even happens at all to bring its own complexity to the space.
As Myrtle’s grip on reality grows looser, will it result in her downfall, or something brilliant? The familiar beats of this story serve a surprising mission, revealing a study of a fractured psyche. Myrtle's mind, rather than her body, is the real landscape being explored. It's not superficiality being challenged, but rather a psychological undoing. One for true theatre lovers, this is a satisfying experience for fans of the original film and newcomers alike.