Cristina in the Cupboard – the point and purpose of the parable. (Theatre review)

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Cristina in the Cupboard

The Depot Theatre from 13 – 30 July. You can grab your tickets here.

Images by Katy Green Loughrey

Cristina In the Cupboard is a piece of magic realism written by one of Australia’s best contemporary playwrights, Paul Gilchrist. It is a complex work that examines both the process of exploring our inner world and the impossibility of withdrawing from our social world, even. Cristina withdraws into what may or may not be a cupboard and has conversations with people who may or may not be in her life. The play is beautifully written, filled with warm, deep phrasing that includes the twists and turns of the meandering mind.

Julie Baz has directed a production staged in and around a childs sandpit, playing to several of the themes called forth in the writing. It gives the words a playful air, a sweetness that offsets the kinds of saltiness we might feel toward someone who removes themselves and refuses to engage with society as it is structured.

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The challenge for Cristina when she takes herself into isolation is one of utility. As an audience we laugh at her friends who demand she leave the cupboard on behalf of being more active on their wall on Facebook, or out of fear of missing out on what is obviously the meaningless speed of transitory events that take up our modern lives. However, it is when her parents arrive on the scene and cite her duties as a daughter, family member and fully functioning member of society that the challenge takes a turn and real questions of love and respect for those around you are brought into the fore. In other words, Cristina’s withdrawal into herself serves no purpose of utility. She does not function. Her isolation places a question over the value of human life. If we can watch Cristina, sitting in her cupboard, refusing to engage with the world as a spiritual act of strength, then surely it is because Paul Gilchrist has presented her to us as a parable.

How would we feel in real life about a person who withdrew from the world, remained inside their room for years, and opened the door only to those who deliver food, closing it again once they have what they need? Parables, some say, serve no function in daily life, rather they take us to an intangible spiritual realm that specifically does not exist. Yet, the problem remains that daily life is all there is. The mystery of Cristina then, is that she is presented to us as a spiritual inspiration, but there is no cause, no religion and no ideology she represents. She is defined more by what she runs away from, than what she runs toward. But how do we treat the people in our society who do this very same thing?

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What does it mean to be going to a place that is no place? Would Cristina’s objective be met if no one noticed she locked herself in that cupboard? When she isolates herself, does she become a parable? Does she cease to be properly human because, like the parable (the journey to the other side that exists primarily to inspire good works in daily life) any attempt to explain her reduces her to the banality of everyday life. Cristina is a character in a Paul Gilchrist fable but she is also a challenge and a question to our daily life – but in what way? Through Gilchrist’s words and Julie Baz’s direction, we are brought to the realisation that wisdom, parables, spirituality, meditation and the like do not need to serve a purpose, but more importantly, they can’t truly be used for one either. Cristina’s retreat becomes an exercise in banality when any sort of meaning is imposed over it.

Emily McGowan brings an other-worldliness to the role of Cristina. She speaks with her head raised, her focus above the heads of the cast and the audience. She is a spiritual Cristina without a religion, a wise Cristina without years and a joyful Cristina without happiness. McGowan floats around the set, engages in the difficult task of relating to others, and resists explaining herself such that she might reduce the ephemeral power of her experience. Her three friends (this is all very Job without God this play) played by Tasha O’Brien, Lucy Quill and Nyssa Hamilton are equal parts comedy, equal parts tragedy as we see aspects of modern day life played out in the way they relate to Cristina. Her boyfriend played by Teale Howie bears the brunt of the blame for Cristina’s isolation because of a kiss that might have been ‘stolen.’ He is a charming and sweet Gabriel, worried about his place in Cristina’s world and his possible role in creating that. But the real strength in this production comes through those playing Cristina’s family. Sarah Plummer and David Jeffrey are funny and recognisable as caring parents, but it is through their concern for both Cristina and her sister Anna (Rachael Williams) that the true taste of the cost of withdrawal might be. David Jeffrey, who also designed and built the amazing set, is hilarious as Cristina’s father, properly complimented by Plummer and Williams who act as women tolerating his differences.

This is one of the best productions to come out of the new and improved Depot theatre. It’s a wonderful thing to see Julie Baz back in fine form (I remember her great direction in productions at The Old Fitz) with a production that is one of the best for 2016.

Highly recommended.

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