The Moors – An American in Yorkshire led by Kate Gaul. (Theatre Review)

The Moors

Siren Theatre Company

Seymour Theatre 9 February to 1 March

You can grab your tickets here.

Images: Clare Hawley

An air of American disquiet pervades The Moors. That cultural cringe thinly masked by the country’s bombastic insistence international ignorance stems from an always already superiority. This traditional refusal turns to a gothic embrace in Jen Silverman’s play. The playwright’s self-consciousness (‘slip’ Dorothy Parker would call it) shows in the surface light dabbling in foreign culture, age and experience Jen Silverman is a little too desperate to showcase. As an intelligent human would, she knows to embrace this reticence and ‘prove’ (or emphatically present) herself as able to comfortably traverse these ponds. American cultural anxiety freezes all surfaces however, and she is left with an arm length just short of full reach. This phenomenon exists in writers such as David Mamet and Arthur Miller (and so many other American writers) but our need to venerate male writers, our desperation for the potent literary voice skewed our vision in the past. Jen Silverman reveals this anxiety, particularly in The Moors, and her voice is all the better for it. As homage, The Moors makes some rookie errors. As a showcase of an American view of foreign literature it is a masterpiece of veiled reticence. It’s gothic tone, its budding Wo(man), its passion for an unreachable source is compellingly female and filled with promise we might start to see some American plays dealing with the subject of ‘America’ with loving honesty. In the hands of a great director like Kate Gaul, the plays vulnerabilities are celebrated and Jen Silverman becomes more than just another American trying to tell us how good they are.

Styled against the important feminist text The Madwoman in the Attic[1], The Moors deals with an anxious world destabilised by ‘mythic masks’ of what it is to be woman. These masks are based on Virginia Wolf’s claim that before we women can write they must “kill” the “angel in the house,” that is, the images males construct of women in general and the women around them.  In order to free themselves, sisters Agatha (a sublime Romy Bartz) and Huldey (a marvelous Enya Daly) lock an unseen brother named Branwell in the Attic, only to find they are still plagued by the tropes and traditions of patriarchal identifications of woman[2].

It is this crucial exposure in the play that removes the text from its obvious homage and locates it in an American literary anxiety. We cease to relate to the female-ness of the heroines and see them as interlopers upon the moors. We struggle to identify them with the traditional feminine texts. Jen Silverman deals with this problem by injecting pop cultural motifs like the famous (and fabulous) ‘Wuthering Heights homage’ dance by Huldey. If not in the hands of a deft director the play can tumble into a kind of Seth Grahame-Smith mash up for intellectuals.

In this case, Kate Gaul effectively takes the baton and via brilliant performances and a stunning set is able to strengthen the lightness of the script by enhancing the gothic and a natural instinct for the Yorkshire writers. Through subtleties such as Eva Di Paolo’s (costume design) decision to give the Moor-Hen a beret rather than an aviator helmet, the essential link with the historical ties are deepened and the text is brought closer to its original intent. An enormous flowing drawing room curtain enhances and locates the production, and a white Marjory (a stunning portrayal by Diana Popovska) relieves the play from another clumsy error perpetuated by previous directors of this complex play. It becomes essential and natural that The Moors is directed by a sophisticated Australian (or other British post-colonial) woman and in this way a genuine collaboration exists between the writer and her director. Kate Gaul clearly loves The Moors and deeply respects Jen Silverman and the beauty of collaboration shines through this superb evocation of The Moors as a play.

Writer and director aside however, The Moors shines through its performances. In this production Kate Gaul has assembled a superb cast that call forth the intention of the writer with sublime cohesion. Romy Bartz carries with her the spirit of British gothic traditions in her chilling portrayal of Agatha the matriarch that calls forth the passion and loyalty of a Mrs Danvers[3] inside us. Enya Daly is disturbing, charming and appropriate mad woman trope in her portrayal of the tragic Huldey. Her Wuthering Heights tribute dance is one of the best moments of the production. Brielle Flynn is dignified and beautiful (recalling the sublime) as the governess trying to understand a bunch of women who act like children. A stand out performance from Diana Popovska as the enigmatic, identity fluid Marjory is not only a highlight of the show’s visual aspects, but the primary intellectual device that liberates the play.

An interesting side note exists in the biological determinists representation of the Mastiff (Thomas Campbell) and the tragic Moor-Hen (Alex Francis). The old chestnut of nature versus nurture is called forth in a symbolically clunky but strangely compelling evocation of Male (violence and destruction) and Female (compliance against her better interests) interactions. From a Queer perspective it’s a superb and wholly damning argument against ‘straight.’ From a bio determinist perspective, the small skit (play within a play – get it) reveals the absurdity of our scientific justifications of human behavior – when have you seen a Moor Hen and a Mastiff fall in love or produce offspring? However, again, the spirit of the authors intent lies less with the text and more with performance and direction as the pair of actors bring the parable to vibrant life including all its violent absurdity.

The Moors is a thrilling production, brought to vibrant and exciting life by Kate Gaul and her energetic, intelligent group of creatives. One gets a sense of potent collaboration inside the production that can only be sourced back to the writer’s original text, and Jen Silverman must be congratulated for evoking it. There are so many wonderful productions on the independent theatre scene in Sydney, so much vitality, so much to feed the mind, that for a production to stand out it must conform to something extra special. The Moors achieves this in so many ways. Turn your television off, pay your $50 and let it touch your life.

[1] by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar

[2] Works such as ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ and other feminist texts locate the madwoman in the attic as a source of repression forced upon women by patriarchy. For Branwell to be locked in the attic by his sisters, implies he was the oppressed invisible writer of the Bronte family and under cuts the famous sisters efforts and serious literary analysis of the Bronte sisters work.

[3] Mrs Danvers is the servant of Rebecca in Daphne du Maurier’s homage to Jane Eyre Rebecca.