Review: Belleville

Theatre

01.09.2014

Review: Belleville

Continuing their 2014 season of dark revelations, Silo Theatre's latest show, Amy Herzog's Belleville, presents a marriage that crumbles violently and unexpectedly over the course of a few days. 

Set in the Parisian suburb of the same name, Belleville is a contemporary thriller centring on a young American couple, Zack (Matt Whelan) and Abby (Sophie Henderson). They've moved to Paris for Zack's work - he's a doctor (without borders) researching a cure for pediatric AIDS - though he suggests they've moved because it's always been Abby's dream to come to Paris, and one that became particularly heightened after the death of her mother. Abby spends her days there as a yoga teacher and a failed actress ("To be an actor you have to love to suffer," she notes dryly, "and I only like to suffer."). She's coming off her meds. She's a devoted and proud wife. They're both devoted to the other. Immensely.

Their relationship begins unravelling when Abby returns to their apartment one afternoon only to find he's not at work. He's at home, in their bedroom, masturbating. They recover from the embarrassment, but as other questions arise around him being at home - and around the visits from their landlords and neighbours, Alioune (Tawanda Manyimo) and Amina (Karmia Madut) - their relationship begins to unwind, rapidly and with great desperation, in both expected and unexpected ways.

Rosabel Tan, Joseph Harper and Eddy Dever discuss the show:

Rosabel

 It was spectacular seeing a thriller on the stage. I can't remember the last time I saw anything like that being attempted since Thomas Sainsbury's show, Beast, in the Basement, years and years ago, and that was more tongue-in-cheek. The whole time I was thinking about how hard it is to do thriller in theatre, and how wonderfully they achieved that gnawing, disquieting sense of tension and fear.

Joseph

I agree. I like when theatre makers really earnestly attempt something.

Eddy

Tension is such an interesting mood to create on a stage; I think theatre has fewer tools at its disposal to do so, especially compared to film.

Rosabel

Totally. You don't have the luxury of a close-up, for instance, which is where film derives a lot of its power. I'm thinking of that classic shot of a person realising there's someone or something behind them -

Joseph

Seems harder to create that feeling of suture too.

Rosabel

What do you mean by that?

Joseph

That feeling when you're watching a film or show and forget that you're watching something that's been fabricated. Which seems extra important in genres like thriller. I think it's a Roland Barthes idea.

Eddy

I've been thinking about that a lot – about how, in a film, you can reveal things to the audience without having them distracted from their current point-of-focus. A shifty eye movement, or a concealed weapon.

Joseph Harper

Yeah definitely. The very thing that makes theatre what it is is working against it in this genre.

I could definitely feel it happening around me.

Silo_Belleville- Matt Whelan - photocredit Andrew Malmo Photography  (3)

Rosabel

The technical elements of Belleville were stunning. Thomas Press' soundscape was so integral to creating the mood of the show (and was a hilarious reminder of the Pavlovian response we now have to that late-2000 phenomenon of the Michael Bay deep-bass boom)

Joseph

I agree. The sound design was excellent.

They did cool things with microphones too - the way they amplified certain doors slamming or added reverb to people in certain parts of the play. Very disquieting.

Rosabel

I also loved the unpredictability of the lighting design - corners and backrooms being sharply lit, the entire stage in a dim light. You were unconsciously placed on the backfoot by your expectations being subverted. It was a kind of misdirection.

Going back to that control of reveal, I reckon John Verryt's set allowed a degree of that too, by allowing only glimpses of certain scenes, and further heightening this sense of the unknown. At times the technical elements felt quite Lynchian - the particular brand of human eeriness where you can't be sure what type of darkness will be revealed

Joseph

Yeah. I wasn't crazy about the look of the set, in terms of the graffiti. But I loved the way you could almost but not quite see into bedrooms and the bathroom.

I also found the passage of time quite Lynchian. The way she'd go into the bedroom to get changed, and because you could see a slither of her it seemed like it was happening in real-time but you could never be sure. Seemed reflexive of the characters' mental states.

Rosabel

Totally. You know, I can't say I was that crazy about the script and its narrative arc. I think it's hard to start a play with a crisis point, especially in theatre. You refuse the audience the chance to establish a connection with the characters, and you kinda need that with Zack and Abby - to know what's at stake.

But Sophie and Matt were fantastic, and they played the ambivalence well. The success of the play - at least in terms of its thriller element – was that you never really understood the true motivations of the characters. You have inklings of where they might go, but you couldn't predict them with real confidence

Joseph

Yeah definitely.

I thought maybe they could have eased in a bit.

Eddy

I think that point relates back to the creation of tension. I think a theatre maker's main tool for rolling out a story while maintaining tension is concealment. That said, I wonder if Belleville's reliance on the latter leads to both the unease the audience feels while watching, but also to a slight sense of confusion or obfuscation.

Rosabel

Exactly. The concealment’s necessary, but it needs to be accompanied by mounting evidence for what happens at the end. It was there, in the dialogue, but I think we needed to see and feel it more tangibly.

(pause)

Basically I felt that it relied too much on this mysterious power of love and devotion, and how blinding and violent it can be.

Joseph

To me it seemed like the thriller genre was only really being used as a frame, and that Herzog had chosen that because of those genre elements you talked about and the way they mirrored the psychological themes.

Rosabel

That's a really great observation.

Joseph

For me it was all about the problems with trying to balance something solid (your ‘physical self') on something theoretical: the terrible weight of actually being something and doing something collapsing through the pedestal of ideas you've built it on.

Rosabel

I totally agree, and I also wanna say - and it's not totally fair, since it's not the intended narrative - but what I really wanted to see more of was what the hell was going through Zack's mind. I mentioned the true story the other night of the middle-aged doctor living on the Swiss-French alps who one day killed his wife, his two children, and then his parents, before trying to kill himself - and how he would spend everyday pretending to go to work at the World Health Organisation but instead would spend those hours just walking through the forest. What's so intriguing is what would've been going through his mind. It's so defensible. There comes a point when there's no way in hell you can turn back, and I guess seeing a little more of Zack's anguish instead of letting it be dulled by weed would've been valuable

Silo_Belleville- Matt Whelan - photocredit Andrew Malmo Photography (1)

Rosabel

It's worth mentioning Oliver Driver’s direction, the best of which is always necessarily and unfairly invisible. He did an amazing job sustaining that level of tension.

Joseph

Yeah. It was well directed. 

Eddy

Some of the most delightful moments were where we saw the characters in a more complete, human light, a good example being when they return home from dinner, both drunk and seemingly happy. 

I think the director did a great job of pulling out the lighter shades in the script.

Rosabel

Yeah, what they did really well was to infuse these utterly mundane, small moments with the beating heart of their relationship. The lack of outright conflict was incredibly deft - the way they teased out those underlying fears and tensions through the dull veneer of the everyday.

Joseph

I think in retrospect those little moments take on this super dark edge though, right?

Eddy

Depends whether you consider the characters actions to be malicious or just misguided.

Photo: Andrew Malmo

Rosabel

Final question: Would you recommend Belleville and, if you would, what would you say about it?

Eddy

I'd say it's a really interesting piece and one which contrasts nicely with the other selections in Silo's current season. I'd also say that the squeamish should prepare to avert their eyes at points.

Rosabel

I'd recommend it too. It's such a thrill to see that level of tension onstage. The cast are fantastic and the technical elements come together to create something rather spectacular. I'm going to take this opportunity to point out how incredible that sequence of scenes with Sophie was, too, after the night out - the slip, the baby monitor - the use of which was another good example of how restrained this play was, despite its  extreme content.

Joseph

Sophie's foot-cut through vomity pratfall was the best theatre moment I've seen on an Auckland stage this year -

 Rosabel

- I'd probably caveat my recommendation with the fact that you need to buy into the story a little, because there are points where you don't feel the emotional connection that's necessary to care about what happens to the characters.

Though I also think that if somebody ever made a thriller onstage that was not only successful in its genre, but was emotionally and psychologically convincing too, I'd probably need a couple months of counselling. 

Joseph

I would recommend it. It's the kind of thing Silo does best. A dark and human piece, well executed and with excellent performances. Shout-outs to Tawanda Manyimo and Karima Madut by the way, whose characters act not only as well executed plot-pushers but also in retrospect, their relationship (which I thought was played with a really nice subtlety and honestly) with it's pragmatic considerations and frustrations seems like a kind of utopia in comparison to Whelan and Henderson, who have let their neuroses go so out of control that they are literally seeping through their skin by the end of it. Great job.


Belleville plays at the Herald Theatre from 28 August - 20 September
Tickets available through Ticketmaster

See also:
Janet McAllister for NZ Herald
Vanessa Byrnes for Theatreview

 

Playing the Good Immigrant: A Review of Woman of Citrus
Read Time: 9 mins
New Volumes critic Waveney Russ digs into the decolonising...
Theatre
Playing the Good Immigrant: A Review of Woman of Citrus
By Waveney Russ
Working Through the End of the World: A Review of HeadSand
Read Time: 8 mins
How do we deal with doomsday on stage? New Volumes...
Theatre
Working Through the End of the World: A Review of HeadSand
By Rachael Longshaw-Park
Build Your Own Whare: The Voices of Te Haukāinga
Read Time: 35 mins
The artists of Te Haukāinga on holding the history...
Theatre
Build Your Own Whare: The Voices of Te Haukāinga
By Kahu Kutia
Feminist Futures: A Review of Working On My Night Moves
Read Time: 11 mins
New Volumes critic India Essuah heads into darkness...
Theatre
Feminist Futures: A Review of Working On My Night Moves
By India Essuah
Loose Canons: Anapela Polata'ivao
Read Time: 4 mins
Iconic Auckland performer and director Anapela Polata...
Theatre
Loose Canons: Anapela Polata'ivao
By Anapela Polata'ivao
Whose Voice Is It Anyway: A Review of Actressexual
Read Time: 9 mins
Kate Prior reviews Sam Brooks' Actressexual and finds...
Theatre
Whose Voice Is It Anyway: A Review of Actressexual
By Kate Prior
The Power of Mangy Dogs
Read Time: 9 mins
Tusiata Avia's barnstorming poetry comes to life at...
Theatre
The Power of Mangy Dogs
By Lana Lopesi
Crazy Rich Discourse: A Review of I Am Rachel Chu
Read Time: 6 mins
I Am Rachel Chu takes on the cultural juggernaut that...
Theatre
Crazy Rich Discourse: A Review of I Am Rachel Chu
By George Fenwick