ARTLOOK #13 | July 2005
Minefields and Miniskirts
Adapted by Terence O’Connell from Siobhán McHugh’s book
Directed by Terence O’Connell
A Malthouse Theatre Production
28 June–2 July
As the evening's performance of Minefields and Miniskirts got underway I could not help but feel a subtle Brechtian influence (not really surprising in a piece of modern theatre, but refreshing in the Canberra theatre scene) with the presentation of song and horrifying stories of human cruelty intertwined with tales of selfless kindness. The partial lack of moral judgement from the playwright (Terence O'Connell) left the members of the audience to decide for themselves.
Each of O'Connell's (or perhaps originally, Siobhán McHugh's) characters had a unique, intriguing, and endearing quality that allowed the audience to see the experiences of Australian women in the Vietnam War from a diverse range of viewpoints. Despite the individuality of the characters, their stories are deftly and interestingly interwoven at various points, drawing the show together.
Terence O'Connell's intelligent and inventive direction was evident in the way in which each of the non-speaking characters took on alternative roles and became set pieces or props for the character recounting their story at the time. For example the use of three actors, a table, two parasols and tight lighting transported the audience into a cyclo-ride through the streets of Saigon. The use of painted fans as masks also gave the impression of a much larger cast.
O'Connell's clever employment of simple props, and somewhat more complex lighting, effectively created scenarios from a field hospital to a brothel to a wartime performance for 'the boys'. This gave the piece breadth and expanded the show beyond the confines of the Playhouse Theatre.
The lighting was equally innovative and clever, with Phil Lethlean's design defining individual characters, scenes and locations. His accurate use of side lighting created a distinct space in which the actors could enter and leave with ease, hereby facilitating the fast pace and tight professionalism of the piece.
Lighting also served to compliment and highlight Catherine Raven's attractive and evocative set. As people entered the theatre they saw a preset stage with subtle side- and down-lighting that immediately evoked a feeling of South East Asia, complete with rice paddies skirting the stage, lanterns seemingly floating above the stage, and a makeshift bamboo proscenium. Raven's costume design was similarly attractive: Designs were based on South East Asian styles, and clearly reflected the character's profession and traits.
The integration between lighting and set created innovative spaces as well as simple but highly effective devices, such as the spinning helicopter blades that were produced by strong down-lighting shining through a slowly rotating ceiling fan.
The all female cast (Sally Cooper, Wendy Stapleton, Robyn Arthur, Anne Wood, and Kristin Keam) consisted of strong, wonderfully committed actors, who rightly deserved the extended applause following the opening night performance.
The actors gave tight performances with rousing song, quick fire dialogue, and beautiful moments of silence, deafening in their honesty, poignancy, and emotion.
Vocal quality was of a high degree, and although all actors wore remote microphones, their voices were clear and, importantly, well suited to their individual characters. For example, the veteran's wife—played with striking nuance by Sally Cooper—had a childlike softness and demure quality to her voice, reflecting her (initial) submissive innocence.
The stories recounted to the audience by each of the five characters varied between the comic, sickening, poignant and horrifying, but on each occasion were conveyed with strength, conviction and honesty by the talented cast.
The sound designer and sound engineer (respectively Rod Davies and Russell Goldsmith) are similarly talented. Davies's sound design was professional and adroit, and the skilful integration of sound effects, and seamless incorporation of song, into the action are deserving of praise. At no point did the sound effects jar with what was occurring onstage, and many times served to heighten the already palpable emotion. This was particularly evident in the 'Saigon Bride' song toward the end of the performance. This scene was a culmination of theatricality where choreography, dialogue, music, acting, lighting, and direction amalgamated to form an arresting theatrical alloy.
This incorporation of all theatrical elements was a trademark of the performance and should be commended. It seems Playbox Theatre's name change to Malthouse Theatre has done nothing to hinder their professionalism or alter their high quality productions.
Isaac Reilly is a theatre practitioner and freelance reviewer