by Laura Kressly
Though a master of testing the theatrical limits of space and time, the first half of Alistair McDowall’s latest play unfolds like a straightforward Gothic thriller. In a largely recognisable style and form, an unnamed young woman is rescued from a Victorian asylum by a medium needing a new assistant, but her unanticipated power has frightening consequences for the household. Though an interesting enough consideration of spiritualism and class, the second half of the show is far more expansive and unpredictable. Like McDowall’s previous plays X and Pomona, dramaturgical conventions are so distended that the world in Act I seems alien. The real world we live in does, too.
Inspired by an obscure work of amateur scholarship proposing that artists, writers and historians throughout time have used an illuminated woman – ‘The Woman’ – as a symbol within their work, McDowall goes a step further and makes her flesh. This results in her having far more power than a symbol would, even though The Woman is most content when she’s completely isolated or with a trusted friend. Ria Zmitrowicz, one of the most exceptional actors of her generation, heaves and wrenches herself through time with fluctuating strength. Sometimes she gasps and whispers, at others she easily eviscerates threats. She is painfully, unpredictably human. The other three performers multi-role as friends and foes past and present. In the first act, Rakie Ayola as the sophisticated but sinisterly ambitious medium Mrs Lyall provides particularly good contrast.
The script is richly layered with big ideas about good and evil, fear of The Other, and Judaeo-Christian universe creation, as well as the more pedestrian topics of time travel and multiple realms of existence. The latter two move the narrative along, but do not fully reflect McDowall’s skill – the broader themes and the disquieting air of mystery are instead what makes this show excel. Perhaps most incendiary is how The Woman is treated through most of human history. People are not generally known for being kind or tolerant to those considered different; instead we have historically killed, tortured and imprisoned difference that is perceived as a threat. The Woman carries not just a typical lifetime of this, but eons. Her trauma is clearly beyond any mortal’s capacity to carry, but carry it she must for all of time.
This burden is reflected in Merle Hensel’s set that evokes an ancient rock formation or endless gorge. The hulking, angular components expand and contract to create claustrophobic, inky spaces that harbour The Woman’s incomprehensible torture. Whether it is a cave, an asylum or a contemporary suburban home, light never truly reaches every crevice despite the fiery images in Tal Rosner’s video design.
However, as unsettling as the premise may be that there is a woman forever bound to walk this earth’s entire existence and beyond, McDowall does not solely provide us with a mythic tale of despair. There are some easy moments of joy, and a final sense of peaceful relief that accompanies the thought that with darkness there is always light – it just might be hidden for awhile.
The Glow runs through 5 March.
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