This may seem like cheating that I am offering my opinions on what seems like two very different plays. Maybe it is. Isn’t it nice I don’t have to follow anyone’s rules? But there is a point to it if you care to continue.
‘Babyteeth’, commissioned by and showing at Belvoir St Theatre was written by Rita Kalnejais in 2011 and is directed by Eamon Flack. It is the story of 14 year old cancer victim, Milla and the people in her life- her parents, violin teacher, neighbour and boyfriend.
‘Hedda Gabler’, Henrik Ibsen’s classic play, premiered in 1891 and is now showing at the Tap Gallery for Factotum Theatre Company, directed by Liz Arday. It explores the story of Hedda, her recent marriage, her independent spirit, affected by social constraints and status and its ultimate consequences on her and those around her.
But I don’t really want to focus on the stories of each play- that’s not really my thing. I’ve said before, if you want to know what the story is about, go and read the press release or the blurb on the back of the show flyer. For me it’s about the experience of both plays for the audience (or on me in the audience if you will) and that’s why I’ve thrown them together. I want to address the same thing about each show- the lack of tension.
So, to all those people who hate teachers, stop reading now because I’m going to put my teacher hat on and give you a little lesson on tension and audience engagement.
Ever wondered why you felt ambivalent about a show, why it may have been interesting but you weren’t moved by the plight of the characters or didn’t really care what happened to them in the end? Well there’s a good chance the show was missing tension.
Tension is the thing that draws you into the action, creates anticipation about events, relationships, choices, objectives, intent- it lies in the tactics, the obstacles, the subtext, the subtleties of the action. And it can take many different forms- inner, comic, sexual, etc. It makes you care about what happens in the play.
So why did ‘Babyteeth’ seem like it had all the ingredients but wasn’t quite cooked? The acting was good (a special mention to Eamon Farren although all cast were strong). Robert Cousin’s rotating stage design was a lovely metaphor for the cycle of events and a great vehicle for the constant changes in location and yet still reinforcing the lives of this intimate group of characters bound by the events unfolding in this house. In fact the technical elements all enhanced the story and Flack brought out the eccentricities of the characters- the prescription medicated mother, steady injectable dad, drug dealing boyfriend, ditzy blonde pregnant neighbour, cantankerous Latvian violin teacher and his small protégée and the terminally ill protagonist.
I think the answer then lies in the writing. Kalnejais has focused her energies on painting these colourful characters and it is not until we get to the end of the play, with Milla and Moses (her boyfriend Farren) lying in bed contemplating death that we feel our first twangs of tension- a concern for the lives of these people. The ending is the strongest part of the play but for what is almost 2 and a half hours in length, this is a long time to wait. There's too long spent on the gags and not enough on the tension between the characters and their choices, hopes and disappointments. Whilst the comedy elements are interesting and my attention didn’t really wane, which suggests that Kalnejais has all the makings of a good writer, the writing just hasn’t quite reached the maturity of developing the drama in the comedy. The eccentricities outweigh the emotion.
Now onto Factotum’s ‘Hedda Gabler’. Believe it or not, it gives me no pleasure to kick the little guy. I don’t want to ‘shit’ all over the small independent co-op group, struggling for audience. I respect the courage to stage work, perform in the public arena and all the time and effort they have invested in the show. So I will write the following as kindly as I can.
‘Hedda Gabler’ is a play strewn with tension in its writing but unfortunately director Arday has made the choice to turn the play into a melodrama. The problem with doing this, playing the objectives and attitudes of the characters in such an obvious way, with other characters pretending not to notice, is that there’s no suspense left, no anticipating what may happen next. It becomes a latent interpretation of the characters and in a social setting of the late 1800’s, what you mean should probably be more hidden. Here is an environment where you are often talking about anything but what you really want to talk about. It's what under the surface that makes it a powerful exploration of social relationships, personal needs and wants and how to manipulate people to get what you want with subtle power shifts and plays. So if you expose the protagonist as a villain immediately and constantly, we see the ending a mile off and what’s at stake for us? This is best captured when Hedda holds the gun to her temple and your audience started sniggering. It’s probably not the effect you want.
You can, of course, play it anyway you want. But there is a cost and in this case, it is at the expense of tension.
But there are a couple of actors who really tried to bring it- Richard Hillier and Lana Kershaw. And I encourage all the creative team to keep trying and learning and experimenting with their craft. I also suggest you call in a few experienced and trusted colleagues to look at your work and offer a fresh and honest perspective so you can continue to learn and grow and hopefully succeed.
And there endeth the lesson on tension. Regardless of style or form, find the tension, play with it, manipulate it but whatever you do, don’t forsake it.