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Review: “The Arnolfini Portrait” by Tamsyn Chandler

Online theatre is something most of us theatre enthusiasts have grown accustomed to in the midst of the pandemic. Despite the increase in production of audio plays, the challenge to produce a successful piece of writing for audio remains undeniably demanding. With the lack of visuals, the audience’s focus is shifted greatly onto the audio as we are called to explore the range and versatility of voice and sound. This piece of writing and its execution seem to do just that: the weighty topics addressed by Alexander (James Newbery) and Jean (Grace de Souza) are voiced with both boldness and vulnerability respectively whilst the play also cleverly employed an unnerving sound palette well suited to the tone of the writing.

The Arnolfini Portrait, written by Tamsyn Chandler, explores the past trauma of the protagonist Jean as she is confronted with her memories and hallucinations all within the walls of her local art gallery. Themes of self-realisation, healing and recovery, grief and memory were all explored with sensitivity and authenticity to the point where my observance of these provoking conversations between Alexander and Jean felt almost intrusive. The writing was simple yet profound. This, I felt gave the voice actors the license to inject emotion and their own sense of weight into each of the lines. A methodical structure outlined by the various options offered by an automated receptionist when a hotline was rung provided a sense of direction – a necessity when the audience is relying solely on audio. Any sense of a sporadic podcast was removed by this initial outlining.

The performance of Alexander (James Newbery) was unafraid and disconcertingly provoking and it is to this which I believe credit is owed. I enjoyed the menacing tone delivered by Newbery as the convincing delivery of his lines prompted the uncomfortable unveiling of Jean’s memories. Sufficient depth of character was achieved through the intonation of particular lines and sharp contrast in delivery between on-the-surface chat and the heavier lines. Newbery’s use of a slow pace in his more controversial lines was noticeable and successful in exposing the more derisive side of his character. Praise must be granted to Newbery’s diction, which allowed for a very precise, controlled delivery of complex lines – a real treat for the ears in an audio play.

The Arnolfini Portrait explores the past trauma of the protagonist Jean as she is confronted with her memories and hallucinations all within the walls of her local art gallery.

The performance of Jean (Grace de Souza) must be commended for a diverse range of delivery appropriate to the complexity of her character. Conveying a genuine sense of vulnerability and desperation in one line, De Souza was able to quickly shift to a firmer tone conveying stronger frustration, and then to a tone of deep-rooted fear through clever use of phrasing and emphasis. De Souza’s ability to adapt her tone and intonation in accordance with both the lines and temperamental mood of such a multifaceted character must be praised. The complexity of her character, however, came at a small cost as one or two lines lacked the spontaneity and thus authenticity which they were owed. I must contend, however, that this minor detail is trumped by the sheer range of emotions the actor was able to deliver successfully.

The performance highlight of the play also happened to be the writing highlight of the play for me. The line ‘‘leave me alone, but don’t let me be lonely” spoken by Jean was incredibly moving due to its raw exposing honesty in both writing and delivery. De Souza’s ability to express emotional exhaustion here at the climax was truly memorable. On a note of delivery, I must applaud both actors’ ability to seamlessly bounce off each other – Newbery’s lines had a consistent flare for provoking de Souza’s character, his lines feeding neatly into her responses. One final nod to the use of music – it aided the script beautifully. Its hypnotic character was well suited to the theme of transportation where we see Jean moved from present to past to future. The use of eerie synth to mark Jean’s hallucinations amplified the tension already established by the lines itself. All in all, The Arnolfini Portrait was an intricate, sophisticated project with a controlled yet bold execution. Every element of sound was carefully considered, and I took great satisfaction in being guided along Jean’s journey through the various mediums of sound.

Artwork by Chloe Dootson-Graube.

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