We discover the central character of The Splinter
like a character out of Poe: sitting alone with his thoughts in the half-light, “deep into that darkness peering”. A young girl named Laura, his daughter, has returned home after an unexplained nine-month disappearance. She looks physically different and says nothing. But Laura isn’t the only member of the family who has been irrevocably altered by those nine months. Unable or maybe unwilling to surrender to sleep, the Father (Erik Thomson) begins to doubt, then distrust, this shadow of the Laura he once knew.
Playwright Hilary Bell and director Sarah Goodes’s key act of trickery is to have the audience experience The Splinter
through the insomnious eyes of the Father. Thus we see not one Laura, but a strange multiplicity of Lauras shifting shape and form in the most disorienting of ways.
One of the Laura changelings is a small, blonde, five-year-old-sized puppet, whose huge unblinking blue eyes look imploring and sinister by turn. Just seeing this plaything sitting among human adults in a very adult space feels subtly uncomfortable. At other times we see Laura, or fail to see her, in the shape of a hollowed-out paper dress.
But Laura’s most unsettling incarnations are those played by performers Julia Ohannessian and Kate Worsley, who even switch roles mid-scene in a mockery of the father’s ever deepening delirium. Their eyes are as large and wide as the puppet’s but even more penetrating, and they waft about the space like stage-managing poltergeists, setting theatrical disturbances in motion.
The puppets aren’t the only thing in the room being carefully manipulated. The Splinter
works hard to cast its spell over the audience like any good psychological thriller. Curtains suspended phantom-like centrestage provide the eerie centrepiece of Renee Mulder’s holiday house set design; Damien Cooper’s lamplight-and-moonlight suggest lurking outside presences; and composer Emily Maguire and sound designer Steve Francis whisper spooky somethings in your ear. A production so dependent on mood and atmosphere turns its designers into storytellers, and The Splinter
is beautifully built out of bad, bad vibes.
That said, scoring such terror is closer to science than art, and Maguire’s orchestral soundtrack might have made better psychological impact with some more notes of menace. It’s only when the audience is terrorised by a flurry of drums that the anxiety kicks in, and the music seems to evaporate precisely when some atonal anxiety might have hit the spot.
Mr Thomson himself, however, is perfectly in tune with the tone of the production, capturing the anguish of a man trapped in a nightmare, alternating between thoughts tender and accusatory. By the pointy end of The Splinter
, the misery and fatigue is etched into his face.
As successful as The Splinter
is as a window into that particular character’s mind, it denies us crucial glimpses into other windows. The play’s opening scenes are far more effective at providing an exposition of events than of its characters. In the relationship between Laura’s parents (Helen Thomson playing the Mother) we see all strain and no love. The Father’s downward spiral would be more frightening if we knew what he was spiralling away from, the play’s more extraordinary departures from reality more powerful if they were grounded in more of the ordinary.
That said, the final moments of the production, when the poison of the Father’s own thoughts has done its work, are perfectly conveyed. The combination of a hitherto unheard voice and the sight of that defenceless puppet achieves something chilling and distressing. For a production that enjoys keeping us in the dark, it’s when we see reality as it is really is that The Splinter
is at its most powerful.
A word about the making of the production itself. The Splinter
was conceived, gestated, born, nurtured and raised by Sydney Theatre Company-commissioned talent, mostly within its own walls. It represents a true collaboration between STC’s resident actors, playwright Hilary Bell, puppetry and movement director Alice Osborne, director Sarah Goodes and the company’s literary manager Polly Rowe, to create a truly innovative production. It’s a thrill to see the company venture so boldly into uncharted theatrical territory and arrive somewhere genuinely new and interesting. STC’s new tale of mystery and imagination is, itself, the result of a terrific act of imagination.
In a week the STC has appointed a new, that is to say not-so-new, artistic director, who makes no secret of his preference for text-based theatre
, we can only hope that STC continues to support such bold, experimental theatre-making practice in the future.
More: Time Out interview with director Sarah Goodes and puppetry and movement director Alice Osborne