Ah, the lessons of life. Or better yet, the lessons of Hollywood. Anyone growing up in the past century (I'm guessing that's most of you) will know deep in their hearts that's the real classroom is right there in front of the silver screen, and that TV is the most important homework. It's where we learn the vital secrets of human interaction, of courage and shame, desire and fear. It's where we discover ways to interpret the subtleties of interpersonal communication, and how to hot-wire a car. How to knock out a guard and steal their clothes. How to laugh at random barnyard animal attacks.
And of course, it's how we know that whenever someone says "I love you", a kiss will probably follow. And if someone says "I will love you forever", you just know they're going to end up dressed in a bloody wedding gown putting an axe through the bedroom door as they scream "YOU PROMISED! WE WILL BE FOREVER IN DEATH!"
It's just one of those things you wouldn't know if it weren't for the movies.
We've all seen The Woman Before, the new show by Theatre @ Risk. Slotting neatly into those tracks carved into the road by Fatal Attraction, Play Misty for Me and any number of truly awful but compulsively watchable straight to video releases (usually titled a mix 'n match of "lethal/fatal/deadly/crimes of" and "passion/obsession/the senses/erotica") it features all the standard elements: neat family unit of Daddy, Mummy and teenage son; creepy woman from Dad's past turning up unexpectedly; hints at pre-existing familial tensions underlying the veneer of domestic bliss; increasingly crazy behaviour from the intruder; various attempts at seduction by said intruder; lots of murder and bloodshed and stuff to wrap up proceedings.
It's highly watchable since the plot unfolds quickly and economically along the lines of a Hollywood thriller, and there's some outstanding direction by Chris Bendall. I liked the performances given, too. But I'm just unsure about the play itself. The writer, German Roland Schimmelpfennig (translates as 'mouldy penny' - now you know) is one of the most performed playwrights in his home country, and wrote Arabian Night, also produced last year by the same company. Now, that was one hell of a show - a line from one of my reviews is used in a lot of publicity material printed by the Risk folks (apparently a line from a different review of mine is going to be used in the next brochure from one of Melbourne's big theatre companies - hallowed doors will open). And I can't say I've seen such a consistently good output from another group in the last few years. Bendall's got the goods, it seems.
But at the afterparty of The Woman Before's opening night, one playwright told me it was the most angering, misogynistic thing she'd seen in ages. A director disagreed; thought is was a metaphor for the main character's fear of women, stuff like that. And an actor friend didn't like it much because he thought the performances were lame. None of these were my reaction. But I can see merit in all of them.
What I think is this: it's a play worth a look. It's weirdly archaic in its way, and gestures towards other texts (some reviewers even invoked Medea) without necessarily adding a new twist on them. But it is a rip-roaring ride of a thriller of a horror of a play, and I think that in terms of pacing and direction, some other local theatre people could learn something from it. It's certainly not flawless (God, far from it) but its flaws are kind of as interesting as its strong points, and probably as instructive.
It's like Hollywood in that way, too.