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Doll madness

Douglas Leonard

Ramsey Hatfield, Lisa O’Neill, Doll 17	Ramsey Hatfield, Lisa O’Neill, Doll 17
photo Phil Hargreaves
I feel that strong emotion must leave its trace; and it is only a question of discovering how we can get ourselves again attached to it, so that we shall be able to live our lives through from the start.
Virginia Woolf

This statement not only encapsulates the strong residual ‘feel’ of Frank Company’s Doll 17, but also connotez Frank’s distinctive performance concerns. It simultaneously defines the task for the actor; the dilemma facing the characters; and designer John Nobb’s aesthetic referencing of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House as much as Ray Lawler’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll.

Pink, 50’s boudoir pink, was everywhere: scintillating in the costuming and the fake fur-lined wall denoting an arch female ‘interior’ from which exits and entrances took place via a revolving mirror door signifying an anterior reality, not a conventional ‘exterior.’ The audience was circumscribed by mythic time, witness to eternal recurrence rather than linear exposition. In Olive’s space, time was the enemy: “If I could hold back time...”, “It’s nothing to do with our time” and no realisation that “There’s a time for sowing and a time for reaping” as the Chorus had proposed. The clock was set at 3 minutes to midnight, and at the end struck 12 as if winding up for a repeat performance of this inverted Cinderella story.

Doll 17 styled itself as a theatrical fantasy based on Lawler’s classic Australian play from the 50s about 2 cane-cutters, Roo and Barney, who live it up in the lay-off season in Melbourne with their girlfriends, Roo’s ‘girl’ for 17 years, Olive, and a stand-in, Pearl, for Barney’s former partner who has opted for marriage instead of relying on the good times. Olive’s outraged refusal of Roo’s similar offer of marriage stood out in this performance with the shocking force of a mirror shattering, contrasted with Roo’s clearly demarcated descent into stupor and melancholy following the smashing of his dreams. Frank’s ironically bitter sweet production emerged as a dark triumph—as the ‘essential’ Doll. It had not gone in search of new interpretations. Not quite a fantasy, it imaginatively and skilfully re-membered the original in a torpedo-charged, wittily theatricalised version which maintained its theme of memory versus nostalgia, doubly so if you had encountered more naturalistic readings. Frank’s achievement was to reaffirm The Summer of the Seventeenth Doll’s ‘classic’ status.

This is in large part due to director Jaqui Carrol’s dramaturgy which indelibly conveyed the fragile emotions underlying the tawdrily fabricated recollections sustaining the protagonists. Strikingly, characters often fell asleep, creating an ambiguous mood that recalled Rilke: “We were thinking of something quite different, invisible, something we held at arms length from you and from ourselves, furtively, with vague anticipation, something for which both of us were in a way only pretexts. We were thinking of a soul, the soul of the doll” (Rainer Maria Rilke, Dolls, “On the Wax Dolls of Lotte Pritzel”). The Doll portrayed by Lisa O’Neill was “a device”, as Jaqui Carrol says, “to let the terror out.” The terror was realised in the whirring clockwork time of O’Neill’s lacquered, tour de force, mechanistic precision, an automaton almost out of control; a sideshow Doll embodying Roo’s gift to Olive each year; a pink tulle creation on point who can only repeat with fractured ferocity the sentimentalised jargon of popular love songs; the Doll with which Olive finally fuses. Like the ballerina in a musical box O’Neill’s Doll is artfully modulated between ‘thing’ (prop, set piece) and live performer.

Caroline Dunphy’s Olive inhabited her dollhouse world like an orchid of steel, precise, nuanced, brittle, perfect. Pearl too was presented with great elegance and control by Leah Shelton, never letting her equivocating role descend into fussiness. It was the men who seemed scorched. Roo’s classic lines rang with hollow portentousness when mouthed by the Chorus: “No more flying down out of the sun, no more eagles. This is the dust we’re in, and we’re going to walk through like everyone else for the rest of our life.” John Nobbs manfully realised Roo’s succumbing to gravity, while Conan Dunning evinced nuggetty integrity as his true-blue mate. The Chorus of 3 Kabuki-style prop manipulators egregiously mocked on.
Frank’s cross cultural performance style seemed more relaxed than usual and with its first engagement with colloquial speech succeeded in evoking a hedonistic 50s Australian suburbia run amok. This was especially so in the New Year’s Eve scene when inflatable plastic armchairs from Crazy Clark’s transformed into dodgem cars and there was a distinctly Pina Bausch touch in the choreography to Perez Prado’s Guaglioni, a mambo with a wicked undercurrent. Doll 17 was a big success at the Energex Brisbane Festival.

Doll 17, Frank Company, director Jaqui Carroll, designer John Nobbs, actors Conan Dunning, Caroline Dunphy, Ramsey Hatfield, John Nobbs, Lisa O’Neill, Emma Pursey, Leah Shelton, Meridah Waters; Visy Theatre, Brisbane Powerhouse, Sept 18-28

RealTime issue #52 Dec-Jan 2002 pg. 35

© Douglas Leonard; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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