Wednesday, September 30, 1987
The Rivers Of China
Sydney Theater Co. presentation of a play in two acts by Alma de Groen. Directed by Peter Kingston; sets, Eamon D'Arcy; costumes, Annemaree Dalziel; lighting, Mark Shelton; dramaturg, Bruce Keller; movement, Lisa Scolt-Murphy; stage manager, Louisr Hucks; assistant stage manager, Sarah Masters. Opened at the Wharf Theater, Sydney, Sept. 9, '87 $A22 top.
Katherine Mansfield.........Helen Morse
Wayne Shule...............Marcus Graham
Cleorgei lvanovitch Gurdjieff/
John Middlelon Murry/
Rahel/Lidia ...............Linden Wilkinson
The Man ........................John Howard
Sydney In a year which has seen a handful of significant new local plays, the Sydney Theater Co's latest offering, Alma de Groen's "The Rivers Of China," is the crowning glory. Innovative, thought-provoking and beautifully crafted, this premiere production is meticulously directed, sensitively performed and imaginatively designed. All add up to an engrossing, profound experience, but not without a willingness on the part of the viewer to be drawn in; this play will not simply wash over one.
Starting point is the last period in the life of New Zealand writer Katherine Mansfield, who was based in London and celebrated for her short stories around the time of World War I and after. She died of tuberculosis at 34, having finally resorted to treatment from a Russian guru of questionable talents. De Groen does not provide a historical, realistic account, but uses these events to embark on a metaphorical journey which transcends mere action in order to explore central themes.
The roles of women and the artist in society and the necessity for freedom of the spirit in all human beings are explored through two narrative streams, the first being Mansfield's treatment from the guru in his "lnstitute" at Fontainebleau. He guides her towards a new self-knowledge through his spiritually-based teachings, enabling her to experience living for the moment. It only works to a point. She realizes that his teachings also involve a celebration of male dominance, and she is therefore in a situation no different to her marriage and life in England. She dies feeling frustrated, unfulfilled, and eternally trapped.
Interwoven through this is a second narrative, set in Sydney in the 1980s, where a fascist, female-dominated society exists. Men are subservient, their books are banned, they are orderlies in hospitals where all doctors are women.
In one such hospital a man who has attempted suicide by jumping off a building has had his face and body reconstructed by plastic surgery. He has also been hypnotised to speed recovery, and when he awakens he believes he is a woman not just any woman, but Katherine Mansfield. His fate, despite the care and support of a young orderly who never knew there were famous men poets, is parallel to that of Mansfield's: doomed.
The narratives work well together, and are even staged in the same space concurrently at times, with striking effect. There is a definite journey taking place, yet the movement on stage is quite static, consciously slow, but still dramatic and suspenseful, particularly in thc scenes with the man, who remains nameless. He is a symbol, in the same way that the character of Mansfield is a symbol; de Groen has perhaps chosen the writer for convenience, but it is an appropriate choice.
Performances are exemplary. Helen Morse. much loved in Australia for her screen and stage portrayals, becomes Mansfield to the core, a diminutive, pale figure, expressing pain and anguish that cuts deep. John Howard, emerging as one of Australia's finest young theater actors, gives corresponding treatment to the man in a moving portrayal. They are supported well by the rest of the cast, especially Marcus Craham as the orderly, fresh and sincere.
Eamon D'Arcy's set is suggestive of the space Mansfield's mind was travelling in, if not the mind itself, and is one of the best designs seen on the stage of the Wharf Theater to date. An integral part of the play, it should be used in any successive productions.
"The Rivers Of China" deserves to succeed. It will depend on the audiences' acceptance of what is a very different, even experimental, play, and their willingness to embark on the voyage it demands of them. With so many positive ingredients. it has a good head start. Krug.