Review: In the Next Room, or, the vibrator play

This is the last production from State Theatre for this year and they could not ask for a bigger finish. Better still is the fact that it is involving so many South Australians.

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Presented by State Theatre Company of SA (as part of the Feast Festival)
Reviewed Wednesday 7th November 2012

State Theatre is ending its year on a very high note with this production of Sarah Ruhl’s very funny, witty, yet often very poignant play. Directed by Catherine Fitzgerald, outgoing Associate Director, this is a stylish costume drama that suddenly turns a sharp corner into refined, wicked, and hilarious comedy, beneath which there lies a set of serious statements about male domination, female sexuality and human relationships, that creep up subtly on an unsuspecting audience. How nice for once to have such issues dealt with without the points being made having to be hammered home. The approach taken in this clever script, coupled with Fitzgerald’s deft touch in her direction, and a superb cast, has more impact than any tub thumping.

Dr. Givings’s wife, Catherine, wants to know exactly what is happening In the Next Room, where her husband treats his patients. The women that go in to his surgery seem much changed when they reappear after his treatment. Her husband will tell her nothing, however, and he keeps the door to his medical rooms locked. Only he, his nurse, Annie, and his patients know, and they are not telling.

Mr. Daldry brings his wife, Sabrina, for treatment as she is suffering from ailments such as light sensitivity, a tearful sadness, and a cooling of their relationship. Dr. Givings diagnoses her as suffering from “hysteria”, a very common complaint in Victorian times that was a catch-all for any number of symptoms that were not clearly related to a known illness. He prescribes treatment to relieve internal pressure by inducing a “paroxysm”. After a short treatment she reappears, flushed but relaxed, and apparently very happy indeed with the news that she will need daily treatments for some time.

Catherine has recently become a mother but her husband has declared her own milk supply as inadequate. This comes up in conversation before the Daldrys leave and they insist on lending their maid, Elizabeth, whose own baby has just died, to be a wet nurse for the child. Catherine is not too happy as, like many servants, Elizabeth is black. She is overruled by her husband, however, and Elizabeth is engaged to feed the child.

This adds to Catherine’s problems, as she sees Elizabeth bonding with the baby, which seems to be rejecting its true mother. She feels that her life lacks romance and love, and that there is no real feeling of any sort between her and her husband. It seems to be simply a polite co-existence, and an occasional and brief visit, by the good doctor, to her bed, at night, in the dark.

Eventually Catherine gains an inkling of what is going on in the doctor’s surgery and, borrowing a hatpin from Sabrina while chatting after another of her visits for treatment, she picks the lock, and Sabrina helps her to use the equipment, a large machine that turns out to be a prototype vibrator. This is, to say the least, a revelation to Catherine.

Into all this comes a young painter, Leo Irving, also seeking treatment for “hysteria”, exhibited in his melancholy over the separation from the woman he loves. He awakens the romantic feelings within Catherine during their conversations and this leads to complications for the doctor, who likes an even and uneventful home life.

Renato Musolino is Dr. Givings, giving a great characterisation of the confident and restrained man who is forced to face a host of emotional upsets. His gradual transformation, and eventual acceptance of truth is a good example of what acting is all about

It is not just Musolino that deserves close attention, though, as his wife is played by Amber McMahon, making a welcome return visit to the Company. Her Catherine is enthusiastic, energetic, inquisitive and full of the joy of life, at the beginning, but McMahon lets us peek beyond the things that Catherine is projecting to those around her, and we glimpse the darker emotions being held in check, in a thoroughly absorbing performance.

The two together provide some terrific moments in the play, but that is just the start. Lizzy Falkland plays Sabrina, and she would be hard put to make her character any work better. She stays right at the edge in the treatment scenes, reducing the audience to tears of laughter, stopping just short of going over the top and ruining it by descending into a ludicrous facsimile of the real thing. She takes us through a great range of emotions as she grows, through taking control of her own life.

Brendan Rock is wonderful as her husband, who completely misses every clue and comes to all the wrong conclusions, to be left wondering what is going on. His marvellous portrayal of a man out of his depth, who hasn’t even noticed the rising water, is notable.

Cameron Goodall’s flamboyant painter, Leo Irving, is the most emotional character in the play leaping from deep depression to falling in love and all points in between. This role is a serious trap for the unwary but, again, Goodall keeps his reigns tight enough to prevent any excesses, something a few other actors could learn from.

Katherine Fyffe plays Annie, the doctor’s assistant, who calmly and sedately goes about her business, but there are certain emotions bubbling away underneath her starched uniform, and Fyffe, knows exactly how and when to reveal them.

The last, but certainly not least, is Pamela Jikiemie in a sensational performance as Elizabeth, who acts as a catalyst for a huge whirlpool of emotions within Catherine. Her completely entrancing performance as a woman, recently bereaved, and constantly reminded of her loss by feeding another’s baby, caused a few teary eyes. We can only hope we see more of her in the future.

All of this takes place on a very detailed set, designed by Ailsa Paterson, and beautifully lit by David Gadsden, that could be nothing but a decorous Victorian sitting room, but with a modern theatrical surprise to come near the end of the play. The costumes are also stunning. With the music from Catherine Oates adding to the atmosphere, the whole work is integrated to a high degree.

This is not, of course, a work of fantasy, even though it might seem that way to a casual observer. In this play we are taken back to the 1880s near New York, and to the Victorian era, with all that is implied in that term. Austerity, propriety, discretion, and repressed emotions, feelings, and sexuality were the norm. Women were covered from top to toe in multitudinous layers of clothing.  What is important though, is that this play is based on fact which, as the saying goes, is often stranger than fiction.

Far from the understandings of mediaeval times, when it was thought that a woman needed to achieve orgasm to conceive, unfortunately for women it was known by this time that it was only necessary for the man to do so. Consequently, men had no consideration for the needs and desires of women. It was even considered that women had no desires. This led to the diagnosis of “hysteria”, a condition invented to cover any of a wide range of perceived symptoms, all of which were really linked to sexual frustration.

If the woman was single, she would be advised to marry. If she was married, then treatment was prescribed. This meant manual “pelvic massage”, continued until the woman had achieved a “paroxysm”, which could take an hour or two. Doctor’s usually passed on this tedious work of manually stimulating the patient until she achieved orgasm, to their nurse or a midwife. That all changed with Benjamin Franklin’s experiments and Thomas Edison’s developments and, by the late 19th Century, the introduction of electricity to the home was well under way. Electricity opened up all sorts of possibilities. In reality, the invention of the vibrator is attributed to a Dr. Mortimer Granville, who introduced his electro-magnetic vibrator in the 1880s.

This is not, though, a history lesson per se. It includes some historical content but it is merely based on a piece of history in order to introduce and to elaborate on a raft of issues that are exposed, for once from a female perspective. If education in a school classroom was this good, there would be no truancy.

This performance is one of the many activities that make up the Adelaide Feast Festival, officially starting on Saturday, so get a copy of the Feast Guide as there are some other events that you might well want to see.

This is the last production from State Theatre for this year and they could not ask for a bigger finish. Better still is the fact that it is involving so many South Australians, including Goodall and McMahon, who now work interstate most of the time. Word is going to spread quickly about this one, so book as soon as you can, or miss out.

Reviewed by Barry Lenny, Arts Editor, Glam Adelaide.

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Venue: Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre, King William Road, Adelaide
Season: to 24th November 2012
Duration: 2hrs 30mins (20 min interval)
Tickets: Adults $35/Conc $29
Bookings: BASS 131 246 or online here

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