Rabbit Hole, Mermaids’ first StAge show of the semester, was a testament to the virtue of simplicity. Director Emma Gylling Mortensen has produced a play that is very clearly a passion project, and her affection for the text was made obvious by creative decisions – from the staging, to a lavishly detailed set, not to mention an inspired playlist – that demonstrated a commitment to utter precision.
In recent years, productions in the StAge have shied away from using proscenium arch staging, preferring to make greater use of the floor. Rabbit Hole took a more traditional approach to positioning, a decision that was by no means unjustified. Thrust staging or acting in the round may be in vogue, but these styles simply wouldn’t have complemented a play like Rabbit Hole, which required that sense of both imagined and literal distance between the actors and the audience. Indeed, the audience were made to feel like intruders on what was an intentionally claustrophobic, intensely private domestic setting, a decision that underpinned the play’s overriding theme: the immensity of a grief that cannot withstand the confines of a broken family’s home. One is very easily reminded of 601’s more typical purpose when in the StAge, and it can admittedly feel slightly surreal to attend a play in a venue more generally decorated in Pablo overspill than set, but the production cannot be commended enough for how painfully accurately it recreated the conditions of a middle-class American household, complete with banal wallpaper, domestic paraphernalia, and even a refrigerator.
The play benefited from the addition of videography, somewhat eerie footage of the lost son which was projected onto the body of Howie, the foiled father re-watching home videos. The image was obviously poignant but more crucially striking, mapping visually how trauma might imprint itself indelibly on a grief-stricken party. There were only two such instances of these ghostly, projected films, and while their infrequency underscored their emotional impact, the production might have gained from exploiting further these visions of a phantom son, perhaps in transitions or as unwanted intrusions in the otherwise uninterrupted scenes. In terms of the rest of the play’s technical direction, the accompanying music – which included Bob Dylan and Simon and Garfunkel – aurally extended the play’s sense of unresolvable longing, a masterful soundtrack of sixties Americana that both geographically grounded the play and tinged it with homesickness.
The actors must all be commended for their realisation of characters that are defined not by their hysteria in the wake of tragedy, but by their emotional inertia. In particular, Sarah Chamberlain’s portrait of stunted grief was a beautiful exercise in understatement, alongside Guy Harvey, whose depiction of a flawed and frustrated husband never failed to elicit our sympathies; together, they presented a couple with demonstrable years of love and affection between them, forced by extraordinary circumstances to navigate their collectively insurmountable pain in wholly individual ways. Katherine Somerby as Izzy was simply astounding, and as the source of the play’s gallows’ humour was a powerhouse of comic timing and minute, expertly-deployed facial expression. Rachel Augustine toed the line between sensitivity and comedy as Nat, and in so doing reminded everyone in the audience of the nuances of their own maternal relationships, while Martin Caforio as the seventeen-year-old Jason was utterly haunting – his trembling physicality, tone of voice, and hesitant use of eye contact perfectly exacted what it is to be so very young and so very ashamed.
At times, the play did feel somewhat slow-moving. Although this may have more to do with the text’s deliberate portrayal of grief as a sluggish, swamp-like quandary, the difficulty of a play like Rabbit Hole is allowing an audience to share in its purposeful lethargy without merely becoming low-energy. The plot, situated as it is post-trauma, does not lend itself to a sense of high stakes, and it is for that reason that the production perhaps could have made greater use of dynamic elements such as its videography, or even judicial editing of the script. Despite this minor issue, the production was not overlong.
Ultimately, Rabbit Hole entrapped its audience in the same confines bordering its characters. It communicated the impossibility of moving forward in an American suburbia that by its very definition remains fundamentally the same. In this muted study of grief, the production respected the text by conveying how its understatement might be its triumph.