music / “Sticks and Stones”. The Song Company with Oday Al Khatib. At Wesley Uniting Church, March 24. Reviewed by GRAHAM McDONALD
THE first thing one notices on entering the theatre is a stunningly sculpted set by Maria T Reginato featuring multi levels of colour, lattice work and carefully focused projections of Canberra’s early designs.
It might well have been a space in one of those Art Hotels from around the world. Certainly, it had an international feel that fitted the theme of the work. Edith Campbell Berry’s story is internationally significant. This is the seed of both the play’s strength and its weakness.
“Cold Light” has many threads of a story linked to a woman’s real power, ambition and skill. It weaves personal and political ascendency to quite simple and effective human motivations. In the main, it avoids sentimental simplification and manages to keep the relationship between the person and the larger circumstances in its sights. “Cold Light” firmly grounds itself in space and time and has the central characters as players moving across the terrain of historical events as if on a board game. There is much that is both recognisable and engaging; especially for audiences familiar with history.
Sonia Todd’s performance was compelling as she became the character while occasionally stepping out into the spotlight to comment on the situations through which Berry journeyed. Toby Cole as her cross-dresser husband, Ambrose, wooed both on-stage characters and the opening night audience with his breaking out into joyful moments of almost naïve playfulness. Each of the supporting actors played multiple roles providing each with complexity and mostly beyond cliché.
It’s quite a long night for a work that has very thin tensions linking scenes; particularly in the first half. In seeking to be true to history and to the novel, the play’s thesis has little hold over the structure of the entire work. This means the dramatic tensions that bind the many scenes are not always evident. A tendency for the actors to pick up on each other’s rhythms dulls the potential variations that do exist in the script.
This said, “Cold Light” is a monumental work on a grand scale. Its carefully directed shaping and sculpting of bodies with space in a literally multi-layered spectrum gives value to culture and cultural expression that affirms the place of the theatre in our society.