NUTS (the ANU’s student theatre society) makes its best theatre when the material they have to work with is a little wild. Last year’s Catherine The Great was a perfect fit with the group’s energetic, irreverent style. A play about the invention of the vibrator (complete with lavish on-stage masturbation scenes) would seem to be a perfect fit – pun intended. Director Dylan van den Berg tackles Sarah Ruhl’s In The Next Room with zeal in an energetic production that provides both farce and drama.
Central to this production is the recruitment of the gifted Oliver Baudert in the role of the frigid Dr. Givings, inventor of the original vibrator – which, no matter how many women orgasm ferociously on his operating table, he only sees as a medical tool for treating hysteria. Oliver is paired with Evie Hall as his wife Catherine, an energetic but tightly wound woman who is beginning to go crazy because she is excluded from full participation in her husband’s life – and his bed.
The play is a take on the idea of separate spheres for men and women. Since Dr. Givings keeps his workshop at home the male sphere of life is literally only “in the next room”. However the vibrator has opened Pandora’s box, and now that women are beginning to take pleasure in their bodies they are deciding they want more out of life. Dr. Givings has a monomaniac focus on his work and the progress of science and while he loves his wife, he does not believe that she should be anything more than a home-maker. Catherine’s ambition is humble: she doesn’t want complete liberation, she just wants a genuine connection with her husband.
While the relationship between Dr. Givings and his wife has moments of love and tenderness, it doesn’t seem to be in any way physical. The play has a romantic ending where Dr. Givings articulates his feelings for his wife and they discover each other’s bodies but this last minute redemption of the relationship does not convince. This is a man who is philosophical over his wife’s potential infidelity. A little more jealousy would have been a sign that he had actual feelings for her rather than a friendly apathy. I think there is partly due to the script: Dr. Givings is a little too clueless and a little too dusty for his discovery of his sexuality to feel real.
A major aspect of this play is the on-stage masturbation where Dr. Givings (and later others) applies the vibrator treatment with predictable results. These scenes keep raising the ante, moving from clinical orgasms to mutual masturbation and peaking with an on-stage sodomisation (treatment for a rare male case of hysteria). The actors put a lot of work into these scenes, producing a cornucopia of distended faces. For me though there were diminishing returns on the humour. The more these scenes were milked for laughs the more blasé I became about them. Even if it’s under the guise of medical treatment, it’s still just masturbation – is it really that funny?
Fortunately the play is supported by some very strong performances. Molly Jones is hilarious as Dr. Givings’ primary patient, showing us a spectacular range of orgasm faces before the end of the play – but also tenderness as she begins to discover feelings for Laura Klein’s nurse. Dylan van den Berg is also strong as a romantic but ever-so-slightly reckless painter – and victim of on-stage sodomisation. Evie Hall did an excellent job with Catherine, playing her with abrupt, off-kilter rhythms that perfectly suggested a warm-hearted woman who is starting to go slightly mad. And Nikita Waldron at one point comes close to stealing the show with an intense dramatic performance. Oliver Baudert stands out as the veteran actor brought in as a ringer to work with the uni students. While Oliver is always excellent, I felt it would be more appropriate to draw on newer talent – especially since the rest of the cast did such a good job.
I haven’t made up my mind about this play. I think the concept of a woman reaching out to a husband only in the next room but a universe away from her is deeply beautiful – unfortunately there’s also raucous masturbation in that next room. I felt like I was really watching two plays: a drama called In The Next Room and a farce called The Vibrator Play. I enjoyed both the farce and the drama (and an enthusiastic audience loved the entire package) but somehow the whole failed to engage me. A woman being masturbated by a doctor as a cure for serious depression has a dark humour to it that gets lost in theatrical moaning and orgasm faces. After a while I started to get a bit bored during the masturbation scenes. I must be getting old. The production is decent – however I have mixed feelings about the script it’s based on, and I need to see another interpretation where the masturbation scenes aren’t quite as overpowering to see how it plays differently.
NUTS will return in 2015 with a new season of plays. Contact: http://nutsanu.wordpress.com/