Neighbourhood Watch, the new play by Lally Katz, is a story of an old Hungarian lady, living out her last days, making friends with a young wannabe actress and remembering the horrors of her own wartime girlhood. It is — formally — a mixed bag of a play involving a sometimes fruitful, sometimes chaotic collision between naturalism and expressionism. The best of the writing has an ungainsayable vibrancy and the play (which is unevenly acted) is directed with a sinuous understated brilliance by Simon Stone configuring great and tight areas of dramatic space out of the tension between two bodies.
By the dexterous use of the revolve, the pattern of converging wheelie bins summons up an illusion of a sustained walk down the street, filling the stage with the colour and the looming presence of a cavalcade of human figures, suburban and mundane, wartime and threatening, Neighbourhood Watch interferees and axe-wielding psychos. It’s very deft and very vivid but everything about this demonstrative, minimal potentially maddening meeting of Lally Katz, the playwright as bouncing bear, and Simon Stone, the auteur of his own imperium, is left in the shade by Robyn Nevin’s performance as the old woman which is simply staggering.
This is, without exaggeration, one of the greatest performances ever to grace an Australian stage, a masterpiece of observation and intensity with an extraordinary comic acuteness and a steely authority which never stops it from being at the same time a performance that wrings the heart.
In the mad way of the Australian theatre, which is like an enactment of Marx on history, it’s the farce rather than the tragedy, the second stab in an improbable medium, which yields the pure gold. This is the performance one might have hoped for from Nevin when she essayed the all but impossible with Queen Lear and there is an irony in the fact that Nevin’s Ana under the direction of a young wizard like Stone should take place in the potential black wilderness of the Sumner stage (where her Lear wandered distract and without enough definition) and that it should be so manifestly a masterpiece of acting. If you have ever thought you wanted to see an Australian actress on stage who could equal Maggie Smith or Judi Dench at the height of their powers, go and see Robyn Nevin in Neighbourhood Watch.
It was a glittering first night at the Sumner. Geoffrey Rush was there after a stint in Hollywood for the award season with his wife Jane Menelaus (so brilliant with Nevin in the MTC’s August: Osage County) who some of us wish was to play Mrs Alving in the MTC’s upcoming production of Ghosts. Fred Schepisi could be seen with his painter wife Mary, and Joanna Murray-Smith whose Pennsylvania Avenue is to be performed later in the year by the sumptuously talented chanteuse Bernadette Robinson was there with her husband Ray Gill, one-time Age arts editor and editor of Crikey’s Daily Review.
Neighbourhood Watch is an odd play in which a young woman haunted by the memory of a former boyfriend, comes to find intimate friendship — and perhaps, the beginning of wisdom — with an old woman dying, whose life flares before her like a set of bright and terrible dreams but who recounts everything with an impassioned sense of seriousness and ridicule and pain.
Megan Holloway plays the girl on one note of expectant incredulity which would be consistently maddening if there was not so much richness all around her. Natasha Herbert doubles effectively as a dreadful Neighbourhood Watch warrior and an upper middle-class woman undergoing chemotherapy, and is good in both roles. If Charlie Garber is bearable but not much more as the girl’s housemate there are flashes in Akos Armont’s performance as the one-time lover and as some Hungarian serial killer of a real histrionic richness. Kris McQuade is superb as an eastern European lady Nevin affects to despise.
The play itself is a curate’s egg full of disparate elements, some in shrieking colour and others with a mundane and meandering banality but there’s no denying that the combo results in something dramatically intense and confronting even if Katz seems to stammer or wobble towards some of her effects, particularly in the flashback sections. Still, the writing is good enough to serve as scaffolding for Nevin’s performance which is a thing of wonder.
This is a dazzling representation of an old woman full of guile and wisdom and prejudice and heartbreak. Nevin is magnificent in the way she inhabits the idiom of her old Hungarian but the performance has a fire and a reality that takes the breath away. At one point, she glides through the web of memory and is suddenly a 12-year-old girl, at another she is a marvellous raconteur, the next a figure of prejudice or a sage or a scold. It is an utterly compelling portrait of an undreamt of individual and it also captures with a force of majesty, the face of a particular sort of ravaged and radiant eastern European womanhood, fragile, fierce and heartrending. It shows Robyn Nevin is a great not simply a very good actress and everyone should see it. This is character acting of such splendour that it becomes heroic and golden and a thing compelling awe.
Neighbourhood Watch is a very strange evening in the theatre because some fraction of the acting — especially where it’s tracing some inner-urban, youngish type — seems so ‘ordinary’ it makes you wonder if Simon Stone can actually tell if acting is thin or bad. On the other hand, his use of space is dynamic and secure and other parts of the acting ensemble (especially the older women) are very good indeed.
Both Lally Katz’s exposition and some fraction of the second world war dialogue is a mess but the whole thing has a slashing colour and verve.
And then there is Nevin — astonishing, marvellous and absolutely real in a performance so riveting and credible that the style is perceptible only from a great distance. If you want to experience every aspect of the Australian theatre from its rawness to its grandeur, see this production.
Neighbourhood Watch is at the Southbank Theatre, Melbourne until 26 April
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