In a tiny room shared by two people and a television, a silent battle rages on. Three people plot their murderous revenge in a poisonous cup of tea before the light falls and their roles are reversed. A Murder Story, Retold uncovers the creeping macabre in the mundane.
In Sydney, September means Sydney Fringe Festival where the city is plastered in pink, the weird and wonderful come out to play, and suddenly every spare basement is a blackbox theatre. This year the Fringe program straddles social distancing restrictions with events and performances hosted both online and in-person as well as the introduction of Global Fringe where international productions are invited to join in on the fun.
Ninefold’s newest experimental movement piece began with Max Richter’s postmodern recomposition and remixing of Antonio Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons”, an 18th century violin concerto depicting the changing seasons. From here the team devised a repeating story with exchangeable characters to create a non-naturalistic narrative with heightened aesthetics and physical story-telling techniques.
For each of the three renditions, a carer enters a cramped room where their patient sleeps, slumped in front of the flickering television. The set design with poke-y corners and overloaded shelves was reminiscent of the Irish hovel Renee Mulder designed for Sydney Theatre Company’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane in 2019. But lighting design by Liam O’Keefe added an electro-pop element that seemed to transport the production to another space and time. Track lighting around the perimeter of the stage amplified the claustrophobia while strobing blue and red lights exacerbated the shadows of the space to shrink the room even further. Combined with the looping violin of Richter’s composition, further altered by Melanie Herbert, and the production design provided a sensorial overload that exaggerated and dramatised the relationship between the two characters. This worked best in the more subtle portrayal of patient/victim and carer/murderer between Gideon Payten-Griffiths and Shane Russon in the first scenario. From there, the dramatics of sound and choreography intensified, straying into melodrama which worked against the overall delicate balance between performance and design.
Direction from Shy Magsalin worked well to develop a sense of difference between the characters and scenarios even as they tread the same plotted path. Payten-Griffiths offered a stand-out performance with the steely set of his features and the disturbing crucifixion choreography of his first death.
Seeing each killer settle into their victim’s chair to share their fate is a somewhat karmic cyclical pattern but it lacks any catharsis because the interpersonal relationship between the characters remains the same across the murders. The carer’s motivation is framed as revenge but, with only a 15 minute scene to unpack the history, the audience must summarise their infractions as being rude; Magsalin’s patient character has the most lines of the show, repeating the phrase “stupid prick” over and over. The carer is clearly exasperated, feeling overworked or under-appreciated, and is spurred on by this to murder. But establishing audience sympathies in this way plays into the ablest narrative that disabled people should exist in a constant state of gratitude for their lives all while quietly accepting the bare minimum of care, consideration, and accommodations. In A Murder Story, Retold, the patient character is portrayed as underserving of their life, let alone deserving of audience sympathy.
So, it’s uncomfortable to see a villainous disabled character defined in the well-worn stereotype of being lazy, vindictive, demanding, and disgusting, especially considering how little disabled representation we see on Australian stages. But against the backdrop of the Royal Commission into Aged Care continuing to reveal stories of gross neglect and abuse, the horrific death of Anne Marie Smith due to neglect by her hired carer and the wider community, and the still climbing death toll after COVID-19 outbreaks in aged care homes across NSW and VIC, the lack of nuance in this patient/victim and carer/murderer relationship comes across painfully clear.
While the aesthetics of A Murder Story, Retold are striking and affective, scratching below the surface of that discomfort might reveal a stomach-turning reality.
A Murder Story, Retold is running at the Old 505 Theatre from September 2nd – 5th as part of Sydney Fringe Festival
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