Spellbinding drama at the Belvoir

Issue 

Night on Bald Mountain
By Patrick White
Company B Belvoir and the State Theatre Company of South Australia
Belvoir Street Theatre until August 4
Directed by Neil Armfield
Set design Anna Borghesi. Costumes Tess Schofield. Music Carl Vine
Reviewed by Helen Jarvis

From the opening moment of this play, the atmosphere is electric. A simple, almost bare, set and understated costumes and music support but do not compete with the acting and the plot. Patrick White's cynical view of humanity's frailties are somehow set in contrast against goats, who have names and personalities but are seldom seen on stage. "You can't trust anything but goats and silence", says Miss Quodling, the goatperson — a truly marvellous character in the Bea Miles tradition played strongly by Carole Skinner.

But up in the house on the hill, there are no animals to leaven the tension as the other humans proceed to reveal their characters and histories. Barry Otto performs magnificently as the cruel and self-centred Professor Sword, and Gillian Jones unravels as his patrician, alcoholic wife Miriam.

The personification of goodness and understanding (as opposed to knowledge), a counterpoint the nightmare of the Swords' relationship, is the nurse, Stella Summerhayes (Essie Davis), whose devotion to her cabinet-maker father gives her strength and grounding, and who exudes genuine love and warmth to all.

What are referred to in the play as "the minor characters of the piece" are really far from that. The earnest young visiting academic Denis Craig (Keith Robinson) and Mrs Sibley the housekeeper give a necessary ballast to the developing relationships and tensions between the three leading characters. Ralph Cotterill's Mrs Sibley is dippily and idiosyncratically played, just held in check from going overboard into farce. (It is the two hikers straying in to witness the awful denouement who are so minor and distracting they would be better dispensed with altogether.)

Neil Armfield once again shows his talent as Sydney's leading director in this taut and charged production. Even in preview performance, the audience was held spellbound for the three hours of the unravelling of one of Patrick White's most compelling scripts. This could well be the play of the year.