Friday, 22 May 2015

The Rivers of China, May 22, 2015 **1/2

By Alma De Groen, by Don't Look Away
Theatre Works, May 21 to 30, 2015
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on Fri May 22
Stars: **1/2
Full review also published in Herald Sun online on Monday May 25, 2015 & later in print. KH
Alexandra Aldrich & Rob Meldrum pic George Darsas

The misty, smoke-filled performance space is a fitting reflection of the opaque and metaphorical story of Alma De Groen’s 1986 play, The Rivers of China.

The play is a poetic, feminist, revenge-story set in two time periods and, although it won two Premiers’ Awards in Victoria and NSW in 1988 when it was considered experimental, in 2015 it seems peculiar and dated.

De Groen’s central character is Australian-Kiwi short story writer, Katherine Mansfield (Alexandra Aldrich), who travels to Fontainebleau in the 1920s seeking treatment for her tuberculosis and ‘a cure for her soul’ from charlatan healer, Gurdjieff (Rob Meldrum).

Meanwhile, in a dystopian world of gender inequality where women have total power and no male writers exist – even in the past – a seriously injured Man (James Cook) awakens in a hospital bed and declares that he is really Katherine Mansfield.

Under Phil Rouse’s direction, the first half has a mesmerising quality, a measured pace, poetic, metaphorical language and the performances, particularly those of Aldrich and Meldrum, are compelling; we want to know what happens next.

However, the second half does not fulfill the promise when Mansfield and Gurdjieff’s philosophical debates about the paradox of identity and slippery notions of ‘self’ become mired in a confusing plot and clumsy solutions to Mansfield’s identity crisis.

It is difficult to care about any of the characters, no one is changed and the narrative threads are rather tenuously drawn together by the end.

In a scene that bears no relation to any part of the story, two men film a snuff movie featuring a girl who lies bound and gagged on the floor. Why?

Aldrich plays Mansfield with composure and dignity and almost makes us believe in the dodgy treatments at Gurdjieff’s Institute of the Harmonious Development of Man, a 1920s version of a hipster health spa.

Meldrum is compelling as Gurdjieff with his sonorous voice, commanding presence and impeccable delivery of poetic dialogue, details of quack health regimes and chauvinist theories about women’s subservience.

The rest of the cast begin well but struggle to make the dialogue and story credible.

An imaginative design (Martelle Hunt) splits the space into a pebbled garden and an elevated hospital ward but the concept and layout do not support the play and interfere with the actors’ movement.

Despite its initially hypnotic atmosphere, The Rivers of China leaves one wondering what it was trying to say about life, art, the self and Katherine Mansfield.

By Kate Herbert

 Alexandra Aldrich pic by George Darsas
Katherine Mansfield: Alexandra Aldrich
Gurdjieff: Rob Meldrum
And: Tom Heath, Claudia Tory, Kim Denman, Ollie Coleman, James Cook
Director: Phil Rouse
Designer: Martelle Hunt

Lighting Designer: Sian James-Holland

Sound Designer: Tom Pitts

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