Thursday, 28 February 2002

Counting Icebergs by Frances Rouse, Feb 28, 2002

The Shed Theatre at Captain Cook's Cottage 
until March 24, 2002
Mott's Cottage Port Fairy Festival March 9 & 10
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Captain Cook's Cottage is a pixie house for tiny people who sleep in short beds. The basil-scented garden is an enjoyable environment for a site-specific historical play.

Cook and his wife, Elizabeth never lived in the cottage in the Fitzroy Gardens. He lived on the high seas or in exotic places most of the time.

She, poor, tortured, sad woman, stayed at home in England waiting for his return to get her pregnant once more.

Frances Rouse's play, Counting Icebergs, directed by Gillian Hardy is about Elizabeth's long life alone at home. It attempts to make a dramatic meal out of a very thin stock.

The problem is that Elizabeth's life was not interesting. This is not to say that an ordinary life cannot make dramatic fodder. The issue is with how a life is presented.

 A biography is 99% drudgery. If it is edited, or if one short period is amplified, it can make drama.

 What is poignant and most dramatic in Elizabeth's life is the death of all of her five children and the murder of her husband. She is interesting for her awful grief.

The tragic month during which Elizabeth's husband is savagely murdered in Hawaii in the same month as her eldest son dies at sea would be a perfect dramatic choice.

James Cook's stories and diaries, the deaths of her other children could be interpolated into the shorter time frame.

All the action happens off stage - probably a hangover from earlier drafts for radio. There is little physical stage action and no onstage dramatic action.

The playwright presents the three ages of Elizabeth simultaneously: the young wife, (Donna Matthews) the mid-life mother, (Brenda Palmer) the old woman who reminisces. (Esme Melville)

This is an interesting device that allows observations, hindsight and commentary to filter through the fragmented, sometimes lyrical dialogue.

The play is non-naturalistic in style. The women read from Cook's diaries and tell tales of his adventures.

It is difficult for the actors to get their teeth into character because they are very sketchily drawn. But Matthews particularly is vocally strong and gives her character passion.

The writing is better suited to listening. The ebb and flow of Elizabeth's life and repetitive quality of the narrative are better suited to radio.

By Kate Herbert

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