Ten Days on The Island Festival
Backspace Theatre, Hobart
From April 1st
By Gai Anderson
The true story of Lady Mary Montague, a strong, independent 18th century woman who bravely pioneered the vaccination of children against smallpox, is a certainly fascinating one. However I was greatly underwhelmed and frustrated by the Tasmanian Theatre Company’s production of Stella Kent’s play at the Backspace on Saturday night. For that strong and strident woman and her dramatic story were almost lost amongst the endless details of petty argument and gossip of a group of self indulgent and largely uninteresting characters.
Whilst Melissa King as Lady Mary and Guy Hooper as the ridiculous Colley Cibber gave fine performances, even they struggled to lift the story above the tedium of a boring costume drama, as the interesting action seemed always to be sidelined or glossed over.
So, Mary’s time in Constantinople, with the orphan children and her own child, as well as her championing of the radical medical procedure against the odds were only ever spoken about and never seen on stage. Meanwhile, the most unlikeable Alexander Pope and his relationship with Mary, dominate the first half of the story ad nauseum.
Perhaps it’s the nature of historical drama, with its basis in academic research, that leads the script to get lost in the details, and Director Jillian Keiley’s use of shadow puppetry silhouettes an inspired way of dealing with some of this material.
Similarly, the clever set-up of the play-within-a-play allowed for the development of a great comic character in Colley Cibber, who as a hack playwright and the “worst Poet Laureate ever appointed” was able to step in and out of the action, with wit, ridiculous flourishes and great melodrama.
The slowly drawn development of Cibbber’s deep and generous friendship with Lady Mary enacted with great subtlety by Hooper was the true highlight of the play.