Time is certainly on the mind of all involved with this production of Joanna Murray-Smith’s examination of a once vibrant relationship now defunct. How the passage of time changes who we are and how we relate to others, particularly our significant other. But also in the major device in the construction of this two-hander – Isabel (Katrina Murphy) has requested exactly ninety minutes of her about-to-be-remarried ex-husband’s time.
William (Gino Cataldo) is less than enthused on his arrival at her artist’s residence but after the initial sparring they soon reminisce about the high and low points of their time together. The production plays out in real time for that hour and a half with flashbacks to how they first met; their honeymoon in Europe; the birth of their daughter; and the tragedy that ultimately dooms the marriage.
In many ways this play reminds me of Scott McArdle’s Coincidences at the End of Time where two former lovers meet and relive their relationship as the world crumbles around them. In that play though, time is about to end forever so there is urgency to the remembrances with considerable weight to the revelations that are ultimately teased out. Here the faux ‘ticking clock’ of the ninety minutes feels like a gimmick that has more to do with the running time then any mechanism to generate urgency and stakes as time ticks down. More importantly, I didn’t understand what Isabel’s goal was to ask for such a specific block of time – it seemed like a lot of extraneous hard work to set up such an artificial device with no actual purpose. They spar, they remember, they part.
The writing was particularly stylised and oftentimes I did not believe that two people – people who had, it turned out, experienced so much together – would talk to each other like that (“You promised me ninety!”). Then again, Isabel is an art restorer and William is a newly minted Golden Globe winning actor so there was a sense of artifice to the many art and theatrical references with the occasional curious, dated pop culture references thrown in (Bozz Scaggs anyone?). Of course, William is significantly older than Isabel having been her teacher so there is naturally a disparity in the comparative frames of reference.
The use of the ‘restored painting metaphor’ was heavy-handed as well – as layers are peeled away we ‘see’ who the subjects of a painting really are. Finally there are times the characters appear to be addressing the audience more than they are each other – this was odd as it robbed us of intimacy and insight as if they were simply regurgitating memories instead of experiencing them.
My biggest problem with the play though is that it was performed at the same pace and measured tone during its length. Murphy was a warm and engaging presence but was so throughout – it is suggested that Isabel is the far more sexually adventurous of the two but I never saw that edge of ‘danger’ nor any passion or ‘spark’ between them. William is an award winning actor but Cataldo never gives him that sense of theatricality – there were moments that could have been played ‘big’ and even the stylised dialogue could have really been emphasised as a ‘performance’. This meant that when his final monologue comes – a time when all artifice should be absent and we see true grief and rawness – it doesn’t have the same impact.
There needed to be more gear changes along the journey to earn the emotional climaxes for both characters. It would have also helped with characterisation - William largely comes off as a prick. When he tells Isabel in the early going why he doesn’t love her anymore he doesn’t just run over her with the bus he reverses the damn thing and steamrolls the poor girl’s prone body a few times in a verbal outburst that was quite shocking. Now, if he was being an ‘Actor’ I might have forgiven the excess but here it made it almost impossible for me to identify with the character.
The one sequence that did work well is when Isabel, the young female student, rings her teacher William and propositions him for sex. He is the reluctant one and amusingly, Isabel tells him that he should be ‘stalking’ her. When he does turn up at her flat she initially denies all knowledge of the call. This sense of play needed to be used more to break up the ‘sameness’ of the production. The actors had a beautifully designed set to perform in as the artist’s loft was lovingly rendered and the lighting cues certainly helped with the flashback sequences.
For me the writing was problematic but this is the sort of play that needed to be far more adventurous within the conceit that was set up to really work.
Directed by Brendan Ellis, Written by Joanna Murray-Smith and starring Katrina Murphy and Gino Cataldo, Ninety’s final performance is tonight at the Garrick Theatre.