Thursday, 21 April 2011

In the Next Room or The Vibrator Play

Our second MTC play for this year was Sarah Ruhl's In the Next Room or The Vibrator Play, which I saw at the Sumner Theatre last night.

Set in the late 19th C New York (?), when electric lights in the home were still a wonder, the play opens with the central character, gentile doctor's wife Catherine (Jacqueline McKenzie), despairing that she doesn't have enough milk to feed her baby and contemplating hiring a wet nurse. But then her husband's (David Roberts) elegant patient Sabrina Daltry (Helen Thomson) arrives suffering from 'nerves and depression' and is whisked into the neighbouring surgery for 'treatment' -- and we realise this play is going in rather another direction entirely.

Did I mention the strange fact that hysterical patients in this period were apparently often treated with vibrators? The idea was to use 'electricity' to 'get the juices flowing' and induce 'paroxysms'...

Needless to say, Sabrina rather enjoys her treatment and is henceforth keen to make daily visits to the doctor.

On the surface the play is part comedy-of-manners, part slapstick, with shades of darker drama. The vibrator scenes in particular are hilarious (although perhaps becoming repetitive by the end). But at the heart of this play, I feel, is the concept of womanhood. The script uses the canvass of repressed late 19th C society to explore what women need in terms of pleasure, intimacy, love, friendship and motherhood.

Catherine is initially curious as to what goes on in her husband's surgery (cos the walls are fairly thin), and then resentful that he will not perform his treatment/experiment on her. She comes to realise the distance and inhibitions in their relationship (he won't even look at her body when undressing her) and yearns for a real connection with a man -- and so fixates on another of her husband's patients, an emotional artist who makes her impassioned (although not loverlike) speeches. At the same time she becomes friends with Sabrina Daltry, and that lady's impending departure from her life makes her even more aware of her growing loneliness. On top of it all, she perceives her own baby becoming more attached to the wet nurse, Elizabeth, than to her.

By the end, Catherine is feeling rejected as a woman on all fronts -- until the final moving resolution with her husband. The character of Sabrina also undergoes her own awakening as she discovers pleasure completely disassociated from her husband and the unique intimacy of female friendships.

I enjoyed this play immensely, which was directed by MTC stalwart, Pamela Rabe. The lavish set shows living room and surgery, allowing scenes to take place simultaneously in both 'rooms'. The costumes are gorgeous -- particularly those of Sabrina and Catherine, who have to get in and out of them (whalebone and corsets included) multiple times. The sometimes awkward juxtaposition of comedy and drama has seen some reviewers criticise, but I feel there's enough depth and good performances to make it worthwhile and entertaining viewing.

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