A Woolf in Cheap Clothing

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It’s a worrying sign if highbrow newspapers such as The Guardian have referred to Abi Morgan’s Splendour as the most “baffling” play of the Edinburgh Fringe, where it premièred in 2000. Think of how many “baffling” plays there are each year at the Edinburgh Festival; now imagine how abstract Splendour must be if it’s on top of the pile. To get the gist of Splendour, think: Virginia Woolf ’s wonderfully poetic novel The Waves transformed into a modern play. But comparing Splendour with anything else demeans its extraordinary achievement: Abi Morgan manages to subvert and reinvent the concept of theatre as we know it. On the surface it is a seemingly trivial snapshot of the lives of four women in an Eastern European city. Beneath this banal façade is an extraordinarily complicated texture of stream-of-consciousness monologue mixed seamlessly with fragmented dialogue. Micheleine is the wife of a dictator, and whilst waiting for him to arrive home she entertains three guests in her mansion, one of whom is a photographer waiting to take a picture of her husband. Micheleine appears to be the quintessential self-assured hostess with ample poise, yet there is something distinctly malevolent and quietly hysterical in her: the “hostess’ disease”, she calls it, and though this type of role has been performed countless times before, Pia Fitzgerald revives the exhausted stereotype. Helen Prichard’s controlled performance of the bitter photographer, Katheryn, brings sharply into focus the startling difference between the dark nature of our interior monologues and the contrived civility of the censored words that we actually communicate to one another. The impressiveness with which all four actresses master the fluidity between these intricate speech patterns is truly stunning. As one character narrates, another simultaneously interprets her speech, whilst someone else drifts into a nostalgic reverie. However, the result is sometimes too fluid: it leaves the audience uncertain as to what is actually being spoken, directly addressing another character; and what is actually thought out loud. This, according to director Luke Sandler, is intentional, but occasionally its complexity borders precariously on the pretentious. But fortunately it never stays in this exasperating territory for too long: under the competant and skilful direction of Luke Sandler, Collapsible Theatre Company succeed in transforming what could potentially be utterly mundane, incomprehensible ramblings into profound and insightful observations. They make the abstract seem tenderly natural, which is a feat rarely achieved with any reasonable degree of success. Splendour is one of the most beautifully innovative plays I’ve ever seen.
ARCHIVE: 4th week TT 2003

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