The play’s the thing

Leeanna Walsman, Jing-Xuan Chan and Luke Mullins (left to right) in "Opening Night". Photo: Brett Boardman/supplied.

Review: Opening Night, Belvoir Street Theatre, Surry Hills – Thursday, 3 March, 2022. Reviewed by editor-at-large Gary Nunn.

★★★★

The play’s the thing wherein Myrtle may catch the conscience of the patriarchy. 

We’re watching a play within a play, the dramatic device Shakespeare himself used several times, most notably in Hamlet. The play, The Second Woman, ushers deeper truths about women, the roles for them as they age and the seemingly limited life choices available to them as society tells them their perceived attractiveness, and therefore value, has waned. 

Its lead, played by Myrtle, is ill at ease. She feels the choices for older women like herself are restrictive enough without playwright Sarah, played by Toni Scanlan, narrowing them further. Her character, Virginia, feels flawed in the worst possible ways; she’s submissive, ageing disgracefully and her borderline desperate reliance on her fading looks to get what she wants feels pathetic rather than empowering.

One particular scene – when Myrtle is slapped by her male co-star – feels degrading to Myrtle. Speaking about it to her hectoring director proves fruitless. “He’s not hitting you for real … actresses get slapped!” is the response. You feel the bristle across the Belvoir; this is the first moment you grow closer to the somewhat muted Myrtle and her character, Virginia, but in two different ways: the former in respect, the latter in sympathy. It isn’t until later we discover Leeanna Walsman’s understated performance was also a theatrical choice.

A well acted play leaves audience members invested enough in characters to care about their fate. This production shows how actors live inside their characters, enduring their same traumas, nightly. The benefit is making the character plausible, three dimensional. The cost is what we see play out in Opening Night. Reality and fantasy can blur.

Who is the second woman? Myrtle’s character, Virginia? Her teenaged super-fan, Nancy, killed by a car outside the theatre? Or Myrtle herself, as she unseats herself from the denial of her second phase of life, numbing down the emotions that come with it through alcohol and by playing characters on stage? According to society, this is the opening of the night-time segment of her life, the autumn before her final winter. Rather than the vivaciousness of new beginnings, she’s falling back on ex-lovers and old tricks in an attempt to rejuvenate and feel relevant. 

David Fleischer’s set, though stagnant, is versatile, navigating us from reality back to the fantasy of the stage, and showing us the storms that rage within and without. As Myrtle’s grip on reality slips, we live her breakdown with her, struggling, too, to decipher reality from delusion. The mirrors work the best, enabling Myrtle to discover who she truly is now; an ad infinitum experience of constant reflection. That act of self-discovery must complete before she can truly find Virginia and all the nuances she deserves; all the nuances that fall short through the playwright’s writing and need to be told through acting via tone, facial cues, limb placement, pace, body language. 

The mirrors in David Fleischer’s set “work the best, enabling Myrtle (Leeanna Walsman) to discover who she truly is now,” writes Gary Nunn. Photo: Brett Boardman/supplied.

But Myrtle’s struggles to connect with Virginia are excruciating, both for her and her co-star, who she leaves stranded on stage as her blockages remain uncleared. A conversation between playwright Sarah and Myrtle over some drinks does little to ease the conflict; there’s clearly no such thing as a universal female experience in the real world; why must there be one on the stage?

The conflict, though, feels underplayed rather than menacing. It builds subtly to the production’s gratifying climax, but could perhaps be taken up a notch.

It’s the ghosts of her experience – the spirit of Nancy, the lifeblood she must discover in Virginia, and her former self – who help Myrtle to a breakthrough in this one act play. 

The final climax is glorious; it compensates for the perhaps too understated performances that preceded it. Watching Myrtle’s obnoxious co-star flounder is the perfect metaphor for the patriarchy hesitating in response to an empowered woman determined to turn the tables, set her own terms and find a new narrative. 

Opening Night plays the Belvoir St Theatre, 25 Belvoir Street, Surry Hills, until Sunday, 27 March, 2022. Visit https://belvoir.com.au/productions/opening-night/ for tickets and further information.

Gary Nunn is editor-at-large of the Sydney Sentinel.

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