Alexander Zeldin’s short-running drama for the National Theatre begins with and sustains a series of images: frames. We meet Alice (Amelda Brown) as an older woman addressing us in front of a classic red velvet theatrical curtain with the house lights up. It’s perhaps fitting that it takes a moment for anyone to realise they’re supposed to listen to or notice an old lady without the cue of theatrical lighting. She tells us a simple story of the compromises and dissatisfactions of life and how she was sent to a boarding school her parents couldn’t afford to ensure she wasn’t impregnated by local surfers. With deft transformation the curtain rises to reveal another stage, upstage, with another red velvet curtain but above it the motto luceat lux vestra: let your light shine. The movement between worlds, with set and costume design by Marg Horwell, is almost balletic in its precision as we meet young Alice (Eryn Jean Norvill) who emerges from that curtain on that stage, framed – and with doubt already being cast on just how brightly her light might shine in this world.
We find ourselves again and again in domestic spaces – literal kitchen sink dramas – and acutely aware of the theatrical framing and the strictures of the roles into which most are cast. The first dramatic vignette leans heavily into mid-century Australian suburban stereotypes and genre expectations for comic effect. At times I felt like we were in a sort of Southern Hemisphere Abigail’s Party. Horwell’s costumes complete the feeling with all the women in flowing skirts, themselves like curtained stages on which someone else’s story is enacted.
With Alice, we travel through various decades and moments with her serving in many ways as the sort of everywoman for the personal as political. The women are reminded to ‘act the part’. A university lecturer opines, ‘poetry makes you an active citizen.’ Along the way, Alice is exploited by an arrogant but revered academic artist (Brian Lipson) who talks of ‘penetrating the canvas’ and is urged to ‘shake it off’ by her uni contemporary, Eva (Pamela Rabe). By now the women are appearing in trousers but they are still in a kitchen, framed by stage scenery that is becoming more and more intentionally obvious.
Zeldin’s script is apparently informed by conversations with his mother about her life. And this is both a blessing and a curse to the work. Entitling them as Confessions is itself a political act for the narrator has committed no sin or crime; yet a woman’s life that spans the latter half of the 20th century and into the 21st will by its very nature be caged in the controlling shame of ‘playing the part’ and thus her story must be confessed and not simply told. Alice is both inspired by and oppressed by unconventionality and art – struggling to let her own light shine amongst a world of dingy options. The personal and political is perhaps summed up by her London library reading stack: studies of poetry and social work.
In many respects, this play captures the simple longing for self-expression and love – and reflects the maddening frustrations in their pursuit. Whilst Zeldin creates a mesmerising meditation – that is also wittily menacing, like a feminist Pinter – he is still studying someone he loves. As a piece of performance art, Confessions cannot be faulted; but it is in many ways an encomium to his mother – an urgent explanation of the force of social expectations on a person – and whilst well-argued, it sometimes rings with just a bit too much advocacy and not enough direct drama to feel as true as it clearly is.
Regardless, the staging is hypnotic, like a kinetic sculpture, and Zeldin’s skills as a director are breathtaking in the production’s pacing and flow. Although not light-hearted, this play is not a dirge. Rather, it will provoke much discussion across the generations – especially with your mother.
Review by Mary Beer
An intimate portrait of a life
Australia 1943 to London 2021, and everything in between.
Alice is learning to be herself against the times. But how do the times shape who we are?
Playing out over a tumultuous eight decades, Alice’s complex relationships become a common thread in her personal journey, in this intimate portrait of a life.
Alexander Zeldin (LOVE, Faith, Hope and Charity) returns to the National Theatre with this international collaboration. Inspired by conversations with his mother and her peers, he brings to life a story of a woman’s attempts to be herself against the pressures of the time. The cast includes Eryn Jean Norvill and Pamela Rabe making their UK stage debuts, and music composed by Yannis Philippakis (Foals).
Director Alexander Zeldin
Set and Costume Designer Marg Horwell
Choreographer and Movement Director Imogen Knight
Lighting Designer Paule Constable
Composer Yannis Philippakis
Sound Design Josh Anio Grigg
Casting Jacob Sparrow
Australian Casting Serena Hill
Associate Director Joanna Pidcock
Dramaturgy Sasha Milavic Davies
Voice Director Cathleen McCarron
National Theatre, South Bank, London SE1 9PX