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The Confessions, National Theatre review - rich mix of the personal and the epic | reviews, news & interviews

The Confessions, National Theatre review - rich mix of the personal and the epic

The Confessions, National Theatre review - rich mix of the personal and the epic

Alexander Zeldin creates a complex portrait of a woman's struggle for self-esteem

Alice's party: Eryn Jean Norvill, with Jerry Killick, Pamela Rabe and Joe BannisterChristophe Raynaud de Lage

How to describe Alexander Zeldin’s latest, The Confessions? It is almost a kitchen-sink drama, but also a picaresque trawl through the life of an Australian woman that’s verging on epic, spanning most of her 80 years. And it’s stirring stuff, alternately enraging, sad and very funny. 

The woman is called Alice, and what we see are her adventures in the unliberated Oz of the late 20th century. As the older Alice, played by Amelda Brown, she addresses the audience directly with the house lights up, a tentative, slightly flustered woman who assures us she isn’t at all interesting. Then she pulls the front curtain back to reveal three girls on a small stage bearing the banner “Luceat lux vestra” (Let Your Light Shine).

These are her pals at a school her parents can’t really afford, waiting in their prom dresses for some navy cadets to arrive. One is the pretty young Alice (Eryn Jean Torvill), one a shrill girl in an ill-fitting number of her mother’s, Pat (Lilit Lesser) and one, the self-appointed leader of this pack, a sturdy girl ready with out-thrust bosom to greet the boys, Susie (Gabrielle Scawthorn). 

We then move behind this smaller stage into our first kitchen, a soulless room at Alice’s home, a year or so later. It soon becomes clear that her father Bob (Brian Lipson, in the first of three roles) has retreated in retirement into a kind of inertia where he sketches a bit while being fussed over by her dull-witted mother Peg (Pamela Rabe, who similarly reappears in two other parts; pictured below with Eryn Jean Norvill). Alice is now a failed first-year student with a romantic prospect called Graham (Joe Bannister, his first of three roles), with whom her mother is keen for her to “settle”. Her true inspiration is art, especially Watteau’s Pierrot painting, which she sees as an invitation to fully live your life. Her father wants her to go back to college, but she doesn’t feel clever enough. 

When Graham comes to visit, it’s clear what a horrendous mistake she is about to make, allying herself to him. He’s a stiff navy security man who’s 21 going on 60, hates foreign novels and immigrants, the sort of person who doesn’t have to pee, he has to relieve himself.

Then it’s three years later in Alice and Graham’s kitchen, where a cheery neighbour (Rabe) has brought over a booze-sodden trifle, her husband (Jerry Killick) is dancing a cod-flamenco to a grim album of his called Tango El Disco and Pat is getting seriously drunk, exchanging banter with Graham about the “gooks” they have killed in Vietnam. Alice is losing herself in the near-sexual pleasure of a solo dance. It’s Abigail’s Party in the Aussie suburbs. Susie, meanwhile, has fled to Europe.

Pamela Rabe and Eryn Jean Norvill in The ConfessionsThe play is only three main scenes in and already the battlelines are clear: the new world versus the old, the old male world versus the new feminist one, the creative versus the destructive. Australia here is a mad mix of all these divisions, its best and brightest hotfooting it to the UK, far from the conservatism and racism of home. Alice is expected to submit to her husband’s every last desire – Bannister scores big laughs when Graham suddenly announces to her that he is ready to have children and wants to start right there and then, before his next tour of duty begins, and don’t worry, it won’t take long. He’ll even throw in some cunnilingus to “loosen" her up. 

Thus begins Alice’s troubled odyssey through the world of men, whom Zeldin divides into three main camps: the absent-paternal (roles played by Lipson), the brutal (Bannister) and the unreliable (Killick, who reappears as a philandering poetry teacher). She also encounters a hardcore lesbian poet, Eva (Rabe), just back from “working with Germaine” in London, who regards all men as killers, and, initially, a sole sweet liberal, Leigh (Yasser Zadeh), who likes reading Simone de Beauvoir. As episodes move on, Alice grows in confidence. But can she finally learn to choose her own fate?

Zeldin also directs and works magic with his staging. As the play proceeds, he makes its theatricality increasingly obvious. The sides of the set become visible, with stage hands manning them, and at one point they rotate the whole set (pictured below). To add to the sense of artifice, the two versions of Alice are regular spectators of the action, off to one side at first but eventually sitting round a table together and exchanging dialogue. Actors may also move onto the stage from the audience and address us from there.Amelda Brown in The ConfessionsThese techniques make the subject of the play less rooted in the everyday reality of the characters’ lives while leaving them with their obvious humanity untouched. It’s a fluid piece, flitting through continents and eras like a morality tale. We also move through various tone shifts, from cosmic to frightening, with abstract electric guitar music by Yannis Philippakis of the Foals that at times grows so dramatic, it makes the auditorium vibrate.

The production is currently on a European tour, with a mix of Australian and British actors. Zeldin has drawn wonderful performances from them all, but hats off to Bannister and Brown, who pull off an almost-nude scene, and to Lipson, a Brit who moved to Melbourne 25 years ago. His final role is as Jacob, a fiftysomething Viennese Jew who we assume fled the Nazis. Alice meets him after her own flight, to Paris and London, in her forties. HIs bashful sweetness when Alice tells him she loves him is a moment of pure theatrical pleasure.

The play was inspired by Zeldin’s elderly mother’s “confessions” to him in 2020, suddenly spilling out all her hidden life to him in a recording. He has fashioned it into a fine, uplifting tribute that portrays the heroism of “ordinary” people with a warm wit and breadth of understanding.






To add to the sense of artifice, the two versions of Alice are regular spectators of the action


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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