Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Review: The Lost Story of the Magdalen Asylum

An evocative though not entirely successful site-specific work by Melbourne company Peepshow Inc, The Lost Story of the Magdalen Asylum draws on the history and atmosphere of the Abbotsford Convent, where Peepshow have been based since 2005, to tell a story of hope, deprivation, and religious devotion.

Like the company’s earlier work, The Mysteries of the Convent, this new production is a meticulously researched and historically accurate rendering of the lives of real people: nuns, prostitutes, penitents and others, whose stories have been woven into a theatrical presentation incorporating a range of disciplines. Puppetry plays a key role in a number of scenes, acrobatic skills are also called into play, while lighting and sound design are judiciously employed to enrich the performances of the two players, Teresa Blake and Carole Patullo.

The Lost Story of the Magdalen Asylum is set in a portion of the former Convent of the Good Shepherd that – unlike other areas of the precinct, which now house studios, galleries, and even a bakery – has not previously been opened up to the public. It is here, in the decrepit dormitories of the Magdalen Asylum, which once housed orphans, wards of the State and girls considered to be in ‘moral danger’, as well as the former industrial laundries where they toiled each day, that Peepshow has chosen to stage their new production.

The echoing halls of the Asylum may have been cleared of decades of pigeon droppings – not to mention cleared as a temporary performance space by WorkSafe inspectors – but its echoing halls are still pungent with a palpable sense of decay and misery which adds significantly to the production as it unfolds.

The opening scenes swiftly and effectively introduce the audience – limited to a maximum of 25 people at a time – to the setting and stories of the Asylum by focusing on the experiences of one Rose Lawler (1875 – 1926), a former Convent resident. We see her trudge towards the Convent doors in the rain, carrying a suitcase from which the narrator’s voice and judicious sound effects play.

In the next scene, and in another room, the scale of the story changes: Rose is a doll trudging up a slope made of heaped dirt, and the Asylum is a birdcage, in which Rose is soon imprisoned. It’s a poignant and beautiful image, heartbreaking in its simplicity, and more than effectively conveying the emotional truths of Rose’s story.

A similarly effective piece of stagecraft is employed in this scene to introduce the four Irish nuns who founded the Convent of the Good Shepherd, and so effective is it that I will say no more about it, so as to avoid diluting its impact for future audiences.

Unfortunately, from this point on, as the audience were awkwardly herded out into a courtyard, and thence upstairs through a progressive series of rooms and scenes, The Lost Story of the Magdalen Asylum began to lose its impact. It may have been opening night nerves, but the performers seemed uneasy in or unused to their multiple roles, an impression that was not helped by the occasional awkward and clunky lines of dialogue they were forced to spout. A scene presenting the theories of Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso about ‘depraved women’ was effectively staged, but its comedic tone seemed at odds with the overall atmosphere of the production; while the final scene, performed outside, beneath the spreading branches of the Separation Oak (planted circa 1850 to mark the separation of Victoria from the colony of NSW) seemed entirely extraneous.

History buffs are sure to enjoy The Lost Story of the Magdalen Asylum, and with time, and additional polishing, it may yet develop into an engaging work; as it currently stands the work fails to sustain the drama and emotion of its opening moments throughout, save for one or two startling and moving moments of stagecraft in the production’s penultimate scene.

Peepshow Inc presents The Lost Story of the Magdalen Asylum at Abbotsford Convent, September 11 – October 2

Director: Melinda Hetzel

Writer/Dramaturg: Kylie Trounson

Performers: Teresa Blake & Carole Patullo

Composition: Teresa Blake & & Steph O’Hara

Sound Design: Steph O’Hara

Set/Costume Design: Dayna Morrissey

Lighting Design: Danny Pettingill


Melbourne Fringe Festival, September 22 – October 10


This review originally appeared at www.artshub.com.au

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