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Canberra Today 16°/18° | Sunday, December 10, 2023 | Digital Edition | Crossword & Sudoku

‘Mesmeric’ original play shows the power of theatre

Chrissie Shaw, in “Demented”. Photo: Jane Duong

Theatre / “Demented”, written by Ruth Pieloor, directed by Ali Clinch. At The Q, Queanbeyan, until August 20. Reviewed by JOE WOODWARD.

A WOMAN tries to open a non-existent door. Chrissie Shaw plays the part of Maggie in a sparse and time-confused world where the doors providing our accustomed movement between moments have all but gone. 

It is at once a stage where Maggie can see and acknowledge her audience who play their part; it is also the loose casing for her very existence. 

Ruth Pieloor, along with the cast, director and crew, has created a mesmeric and highly original play. “Demented” engages a unique actor giving full force to the power of theatre to infect our experience with forebodings, fears, compassion and the sheer frailty of humanity.
Shaw releases a kind of inner poltergeist that dances, plays and disturbs while embarrassing those around her into discovery of empathy and their own vulnerabilities. 

The same might be said for the audience’s coercion into the stage. Shaw’s performance of Maggie is a haunting manifestation of the theatre’s power to deliver meaning that cannot be put into words. 

She so embodies a character’s timelessness and lack of grounding in a real space that her words simply play over the top of an engaging presence. Her moments of certainty then diverge into childlike emotions and unfiltered play creating liminal connections diffusing the walls between the stage, the audience and imagination.

Dealing with an aged character in her eighties and who obviously was a performer in a circus or variety show type genre, Pieloor has used elements of children’s theatre to give a bracing of sorts to the shape of the play. 

Puppetry, clowning and over-the-top performance from the whole cast interlock with moments of serious engagement and direct speech. The magic realism of the puppetry moments provide direct symbolic vehicles for the audience to ride into the strange and less familiar; making for some astonishing moments of fascination. 

But this is not a naïve-style performance. There is an underlying sense of what the French surrealist theatre practitioner, Antonin Artaud, coined as a “theatre of cruelty”. 

Playful as the antics of the theatrical characters were, they evoke a sense of life’s pain and ultimate cruelty. The sound design of Damian Ashcroft certainly assisted in this. 

The stage space and the mesmeric unforced pacing of the work allowed time for the audience to grow with the cast. An open stage and limited dialogue used sparingly helped to evoke a blurring of the theatre form itself. 

Shaw and collegial actors Heidi Silberman, Rachel Pengilly and Carolyn Eccles worked as a cohesive ensemble giving the production its deceptively gentle rhythm. They delivered occasional shocks and surprises that moved the work forward into life’s inevitable dénouement. 

“Demented” is a highly original work that challenges notions of what makes a play. There is so much in it that defies verbal description; much of its powerful messaging is through visual and sound shapes expressing an emotional intelligence going beyond the literal! It can be difficult viewing; but well worth the effort.

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