Madagascar had a cast of three: Noni Hazelhurst, who brought me to tears in our first MTC play, Grace; thoroughly enjoyable quasi-villain Nicholas Bell from the likes of Bad Eggs and The Games (and Mission Impossible II for those who have not been paying proper attention to Australian film and TV circa 1999-2003, and I’m just assuming he’s a villain in that because he does it so very well); and Asher Keddie, who has turned up in just about every Australian TV show running, most recently Rush. The set was built with windows to look despondently out of, a bed to fling oneself on in a fit of hysteria, and a desk with a drawer that made a satisfying bang when thrown shut after a dramatic sentence. Unexpectedly, things get damp in the second act. But I won’t tell you how.
Three people are telling their stories, one that centres around a particular person, and all at separate times: Gideon, known to all but his mother as Paul, who has gone missing after detaching himself from his upper-class family and abandoning himself to the wilds of Madagascar. Noni plays his mother, Lily, waiting for Paul to arrive in Rome to meet with her for the first time after their falling-out six months earlier, unaware that he will never get off the plane from New York. Asher wallows in a silky white nightgown as Paul’s twin sister June, in the same room her mother awaited her son, lamenting the loss of her brother and unable to bear her family’s reactions. Nicholas, alas, tones down the evil to play Nathan, colleague of Paul’s father and someone who finds himself tied to the family before and after their loss, and who tells his tale long afterwards.
They are all three American; you can tell because they say “Madagascarrrrr” and not “Madagaskah”, unafraid as they are of the letter “r” at the end of words. (In Australia, it’s at the top of the terrorist threats. Look it up.) I wasn’t entirely sold on their accents, I have to say, but due to my lack of American accent nuance knowledge it’s hard to tell if it’s that because it was too much like watching old friends imitate actors after seeing them speak normally before. Lily and June are from the upper echelons of society, speaking in refined tones opposed to Nathan’s rougher Bronx voice, not helped by a confusing and violent opening scene which apparently was a dream but I took as fact until Chris pointed it out after the play.
While problems are not left only to the poor, much like last year’s play The Year of Magical Thinking, I spent much of the performance getting quietly annoyed at Lily, who can afford to escape to her Swiss chalet when the weather is nice, who takes her children on holidays overseas and who apparently suffers from the loathsome boredom that arises when there is nothing pressing to do but be upset about something. The rich are just as welcome to being upset as others, but I find myself thinking in these situations what if you couldn’t just leave? What if you couldn’t afford to follow that train of thought all over the world? And so on. That is perhaps a fault in myself and not in the play, but it’s always been the same for me: I’m not interested in the television shows where the rich lie around being rich and having affairs to spice things up, or the books where people sit in their enormous apartments and watch their sad lives reflected in their stainless-steel appliances. Of course money doesn’t buy happiness. But it buys houses and medical bills, and some people are not so lucky.
In the play’s favour, the lighting and music were utterly evocative, and I sometimes found myself completely transported to the places they described and the emotions that accompanied it. It could be haunting and beautiful at times, and when those moments came it was all I want in a play (or any form of media): the ability to be completely transported. It is always a wondrous thing.
But I can’t say I loved the play. Some of the monologues went on for so long that I got a bit distracted and started looking at the audience and playing “What Occupation Do You Have?” in my head, and then would come back to the play and hope I hadn’t missed something important. And to be honest, it ended like that: June was saying something, I got bored, imagined the man in front of me with his jumper around his shoulders as a drama teacher, then the lights went on and everyone burst into applause and I was clapping along and wondering, “Hmmm, did she just say ‘the butler did it’ or something equally important?” (Chris tells me no.) Another irritating thing—and I blame the director for this, as all three actors did it, and I don’t believe they would otherwise—was the inability of any of the actors to insert a pause for dramatic effect. When you are having a train of thought, and it gets interrupted with another line of thinking, there is a pause to indicate the change. I am the Queen Mother of Thought Trains so I know that even at my speediest changes of topic there is still the time where I have to switch, er, tracks (yes, I’m aware I am completely overdoing the train analogy here) and you can hear it. When actors onstage run sentences along together, it doesn’t strike you as much that they are speaking their thoughts aloud as fast as they can as much as they are just reading through the script too fast. It was frustratingly amateur and no sir, I don’t like it.
Despite all this, I can’t say I hated it either. It was surprisingly funny, with Noni getting all the best lines, only one of which I managed to note down through the giggles: “One of the things I didn’t realise about being opinionated is what happens when you pass that trait on.” The love she has for her children, which they occasionally cannot see and which she is occasionally quite poor at showing, is well shown through her tears. Only this time, unlike Grace, I didn’t cry along. Madagascar is an interesting play that perhaps I would have understood better with a more than limited knowledge of the Roman myths referenced the whole way through, but I won’t entreat you to see it. Go watch the drunk O-week kids create real drama at the pub instead.