Dark Voyager – The not so golden years of hollywood. (Theatre Review)

Dark Voyager

The Pavilion Theatre by The Castle Hill Players

April 5 – April 27. You can grab your tickets here.

Images Chris Lundie

A marvelous and wonderful thing occurs in this current production of Dark Voyager as directed by Annette van Roden. While the Camp value of Dark Voyager is undeniable, and the witty word play wake us up to a nostalgic trip down memory lane when the biggest war was waged between colas, a magical shift takes place, and we can see beneath a glittery surface. Beautifully influenced by the strong hand of Annette van Roden, Dark Voyager becomes a powerhouse critique of the capitalist machine Hollywood has become by exposing it as always being thus. Gone is the anger for Stephen Spielberg and his official infantilization of movies and their audiences. We see, via Dark Voyager, that we were just as easily fooled by cinematic propaganda when films resembled art. We’ve always been treated like fools, only the methodology changed.

Immediately obvious in John Misto’s Dark Voyager is his critique of corporate structure and the impact of capitalist hegemony on thought process and action. Dark Voyager seeks to make its point via four influential females from the height of The Golden Age of American cinema, a period most beloved among fans and theorists alike. Those women are not small characters; Hedda Hopper (Annette Emerton) Bette Davis (Faith Jessel) Joan Crawford (Leigh Scanlon) and Marilyn Monroe (Jacqui Wilson). Rather they are the very heart and soul of Hollywood itself. Inside Dark Voyager they are disavowed (while still loved) but it would be foolish to imagine this had anything to do with personality. More likely, it was in the film industries interest to present actresses in this manner, just as it is in the film industries interest to present women as ‘having it all’ today. John Misto’s multiple references to capitalism, fascism, democracy and general political influence (the unseen puppet master in the room is J.Edgar Hoover) suggest revelation of complex and enduring forms of interest representation and intermediation that appears to warrant a revision of how we understand the business end of Hollywood. Alongside the factions and systems, we see a shocking interference with governance made by networks linking high ranking government officials with interest organisations engaged in a perpetual state of neo-corporatist bargaining. In Sheryl Sandberg speak, these women are early examples of ‘lean in’ mentality gone horribly wrong.

Which is, at its core, a damning critique of Hollywood, but an even stronger criticism of corporatism as a ‘system.’ John Misto goes further in his damnation of the Hollywood machine than #Metoo can imagine, in his reduction of these archetypes to entirely powerless women blown about by whatever prevailing wind will keep them at the top of a ladder they can’t properly define. Director Annette van Roden regularly brings the women to the front of the stage to deliver key lines and important clauses, but also this device has the clever addition of reminding us of their screen idol status. The performances vacillate between ‘recall of the goddess’ and real women fussing and fighting underneath. Everything is about power and money. The women never discuss art, nor are artistic methodologies compared or communicated. Status is reduced to maintenance and power becomes the only alternative to death. Literally. While it is thrilling to watch these wonderful performances bring these people alive for us, one can’t escape the chilling darkness John Misto envelopes these lives in, exemplified by estranged, tragic children and even death.

But really, a play this strong, stands on the shoulders of its performances, and Annette van Roden calls forth great work from her very well-rehearsed cast. Annette Emerton as Hedda Hopper is an engaging presence, choosing to display Hopper as a strong resilient woman with wily skill. She is still a puppet of J.Edgar Hoover, but Annette Emerton prefers to imbibe her with some power over that relationship. Hedder Hopper as performed by Annette Emerton is the exemplar of gossip: petty and small minded, but capable of dealing devastating blows in both the long and short game.

However, the production is entirely won and or lost on the roles of Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and Marilyn Monroe, whose evocation encompasses the plays ability to stike a real blow. Looking like these women is relatively simple (although these actresses are well supported by Margaret Olive and Annette van Roden’s costumes, Gavin Jamieson’s makeup design and Gavin Leahy’s accent coaching). The real powerhouse lies in bringing the ghosts into the room. In this, the three performances are entirely successful. Faith Jessel as Bette Davis is a standout, delivering her fabulous lines on the point of a sword, she is the every part the enigmatic screen actress that somehow managed to eek out an enormous career without classical beauty. She careens across the stage making every bit of it her own as we can’t help but imagine Bette Davis might. Her counterpart, Leigh Scanlon as Joan Crawford is superb with her sculpted performance of the troubled Joan Crawford. In Lacanian terms, she calls forth a Joan Crawford enthrall to some Big Other, be it Pepsi, Nixon, the capitalist system or Bette Davis herself. Leigh Scanlon’s Joan Crawford is a beautifully poised lost child seeking a master she can dominate.

Jacqui Wilson performs perhaps the most difficult role of the production with Marilyn Monroe. The female every woman aspires to ‘understand’ at some point in her life (John Misto touches on what Marilyn Monroe means as an icon to men, but misses the all-important relationship her image has to women) Marilyn Monroe is one of the roles most likely to call forth criticism. Easily by-passing this problem, Jacquie Wilson performs this more-symbol-than-woman role with a cleverly worked mix of the screen idol we recognize and the possible woman she may have been underneath. It’ a marvelous performance, and well worth catching.

Gluing all these extraordinary women together is the hapless Skipper well played by Adam Garden. It’s no small thing to share a stage with these women and their alter ego’s and he plays the man in the shadows very well. Part sensitive new age guy, part angry young man, part disoriented man-child, Adam Garden brings a very modern perspective to his role that contains the best spoilers of the production. He fully holds his own as the male representative, delivering it all with some clever comic performance. A performance where Marilyn Monroe convinces him he is gay is particularly funny.

Dark Voyager is a beautifully wrought production, laced with extraordinary attention to detail. Lighting work by Mehran Mortezaei is stylish and carefully thought out, as is Annette van Roden’s sound craftmanship. Peter Rhodes simple set strikes precisely the right tone and one can’t help but sense the presence of film historian Brian Lindsay in every scene. Not only a hugely enjoyable night at the theatre, Dark Voyager as performed by The Castle Hill Players brings a new level of nuance to this compelling play, and rescues it from Camp’s clutches to be more than a series of witty one liners. We had a wonderful time examining film culture through this production. It’s well worth the trek to Castle Hill if you’re not from the district and something to support very proudly if you are. Don’t miss it!