Friday, July 12, 2013

Dangerous Corner

Dangerous Corner runs at the Genesian Theatre from July 6 – August 10 2013. By JB Priestley, directed by Peter Lavelle.

I’m not sure why Genesian Theatre elected to put on JB Priestley’s Dangerous Corner. It is really not a very interesting play. Even Priestley himself said that, “It is pretty thin stuff when all is said and done”. I’m not sure even a brilliant production of it could make it more than cursorily intriguing. If there’s ever been a play that more egregiously breaks the show-don’t-tell rule, I don’t know what it is. Dangerous Corner not only breaks this rule, but smashes it into smithereens. It’s six people sitting around talking about stuff that’s already happened. Literally. That’s pretty much the whole play.

I’m a huge champion of genre fiction on the stage, whether that means romance or crime or paranormal or thriller or horror or whatever, and so I really wanted to like this play. I think the mystery and the whodunit genres work beautifully onstage, as the mystery literally unfolds before the audience’s eyes and they, like the characters, have to solve it in real time. And there are few things as exhilarating as a well-done onstage thriller: the immediacy of the form heightens nearly every aspect of this genre. There was an excellent production of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None in Canberra a few years ago that I still think about often. I would love to see more of this kind of thing on Sydney stages.

Dangerous Corner bills itself as “part whodunit, part thriller”, and it falls absolutely flat. It capitalises on none of the advantages that the theatre can bring to the mystery and the thriller genres. Instead, it is six people talking in a room. There are no clues (crucial to the whodunit) beyond the initial one that sparks the discussion, and no menace (critical to the thriller). These are problems with the script, which is why I wonder why Genesian has saddled themselves with this play when there are much better ones in this genre that they could choose. And while I’m not sure how this play could ever be particularly good (although the play ran for six months, even the initial reviews in 1934 were poor), this production is mediocre at best. Despite the fact the whole show is set in one room and characters very rarely leave, there is no sense of claustrophobia, or of the characters feeling trapped. There should be a powerful psychological intensity, as character after character finds themselves revealing what they thought they would never reveal. The theatre should become a pressure cooker, with each revelation being more explosive than the last. In this production, it doesn’t even come close. It is stilted, laboured, and awkward, making no real emotional or psychological impact. Simply put, it's dull.

In his director’s note, Peter Lavelle writes that he wanted to make this production “fresh and relevant”, taking a “modern approach” and using method-acting. I’m not sure if this is entirely the right choice, particularly as the 1934 setting is maintained. I understand not wanting to put on “a crusty old melodrama from a bygone age”, but I just don’t think this is really the genre in which to go for realism, considering how preposterous and sensational the plot is. This is a space for the spectacular, for the heightened and the emotional. One of the problems with aiming for realism is that you’re forced to play things very sincerely. I think this would have been a much more enjoyable production if it was more self-aware and made fun of itself a little more. The sinister should have been made very sinister; and the ludicrousness should have been highlighted, rather than glossed over. There is simply not enough meat in this script to take it too seriously.

I would like to commend Peter Henson for his costume design. This is a very visually appealing play, and the costumes are gorgeous. If the production itself had gelled with the aesthetic of the costumes – that is, spectacular – then it might have been a better show. I really don’t think Genesian did themselves any favours by selecting this play for their season, but if a genuinely good production of Dangerous Corner does exist, it is not this one.

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