Melancholia (Malthouse) – theatre review

You might have seen Lars Von Trier’s film Melancholia. This world premiere stage production is based on it. But if you enter the theatre knowing nothing about it, I dare say you’re likely to find much perplexing. Suffice to say that like the film, events unfold in two distinct chapters. Underpinning both is depression that affects the central character, aspiring novelist Justine (Eryn Jean Norvill).

Her older sister Claire (Leeanna Walsman) is married to wealthy advertising agency owner John (Steve Mouzakis). Claire throws Justine and her new hubby Michael (Gareth Yuen) a massive showy wedding reception, attended by 300 guests. But Justine and Claire don’t see eye to eye on most things.

Photo: Pia Johnson

Justine suffers from severe mood swings. She’s a tortured soul and does things that can’t readily be explained. Such is the case on her wedding day. By the time she makes it to the venue a couple of hours behind schedule, the guests are starving. Things are however about to turn a whole lot worse. It starts with two outrageous speeches from Justine’s boss John; and from her mother (Maude Davey). They don’t even think of holding back, causing audible gasps from the audience.

With Justine’s marriage well and truly in turmoil, we cut to Claire and John’s home, which they share with their eight-year-old son Leo (Alexander Artemov). Justine has had a complete meltdown and Claire is caring for her; although Justine doesn’t show any appreciation for Claire’s efforts.

But with the arrival of a rogue planet – Melancholia – on the horizon, Claire is increasingly showing signs of distress. Conventional scientific thought is that the planet will safely pass by Earth and order will be restored, but online the view is different. As disruption increases and the sounds becomesdeafening, Claire’s fear becomes all too real. Conversely, Justine is calm and accepting. She, Leo and Claire await the inevitable in a teepee.

Cinema clearly has much more latitude with existential material like this. But writer Declan Green and director Matthew Lutton have done a fine job paring back the cinematic form, but retaining its essence.

Kirsten Dunst won the Best Actress Award at the Cannes Film Festival for her portrayal of Justine. Eryn Jean Norvill makes a good fist of the role in this production, effectively conveying the contradictions in the character. She’s not alone in impressing. Leeanna Walsman palpably conveys Claire’s love/hate relationship with her younger sister. Maude Davey’s and Steve Mouzakis’ wedding addresses are unforgettable; while Gareth Yuen ensures we understand that Michael is in over his head here. Alexander Artemov is remarkably assured in only his second stage appearance as the precocious youngster. Mind you, he has appeared in TV series and in short films.

Photo: Pia Johnson

The minimalist staging works a treat, with Marg Horwell responsible for set and costume design. David Franzke’s soundscape is appropriately menacing, especially as the end of the world nears.

While Melancholia won’t be every one’s cup of tea, it is a compelling flight of fancy. It’s on at Merlyn Theatre, at Malthouse Theatre until 12 August 2018.

Alex First

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