A new play by Kate Mulvany is impeccably realised in this outstanding Ten Days on the Island and Tasmanian Theatre Company co-production.
Jane Johnson, Jane Longhurst and Ben Winspear in The Mares. Photo credit: Amy Brown.
It’s not often you see a work of theatre so extraordinary, so impeccably and intelligently put together and performed that it leaves you struggling for words.
As a reviewer you are simultaneously looking for the ‘hows’ and ‘whys’ of creative decisions, the wobbles, confusions, a falter or an exhalation. You look for the imperfections; to the moments you aren’t fully absorbed, to the lulls in energy, so you can discuss how the work could reach its potential for an audience. You search for the unresolved to contrast against the glimmers of brilliance. You hunt for its full potential, a moment in the work that reaches deep down and pulls out a diamond of expression, a way of storytelling that is so powerful and so unique it floors you.
Rarely do you see a work that is so superb, so vital, so startlingly honest, so original, brutal, earthy and precise, so disarmingly funny and crafted that it leaves nothing wanting.
The Mares is such a work of impactful brilliance, the kind of theatrical golden unicorn you very rarely encounter.
In The Mares, Kate Mulvany reimagines a series of legendary myths referencing Greek mythology, but this world is simultaneously ancient and apocalyptic, timeless in its epic imagining. She creates a society led by fierce equestrian warrior women who have made an island for themselves free of the constraints of gender. So notorious is their power that men from neighbouring lands seek to fight them. The work’s title references both the close-knit bonds that these women have with the horses they fight on and live with, but also the modern day rituals of horse breeding which form the opening scene of the work, and are referenced at poignant points during The Mares.
Director Leticia Cáceres brings this world to life in a highly detailed, absolutely committed way. It’s a world part bathed in otherness, part peppered with the reality of today. Drenched by earthy humour and dripping in insightful characters and bigger, layered, probing of gendered violence, sexuality and feminism.
The Mares opens with all the performers embodied as horses. We see them break into a canter under the harsh fluorescent lights (expertly designed by Nicholas Higgins) and then we see them discussed as objects for breeding, milking and mating.
This commitment to embodied physicality by the actors is deeply focussed and their intense and committed performances continue throughout the production as we watch them transform into a myriad of characters, both of their own gender and not. Cáceres has expertly provided an environment in which each of these actors could stretch themselves outside of their range to the edge of their emotional and physical capacity and produce astounding performances.
Whether it is Ben Winspear playing a transgendered Achilles, Jane Johnson embodying an embittered stallion trainer or a traumatised female warrior, Sara Cooper a simultaneously tender and pragmatic horse breeder, these actors are transfixing.
The characters in this work are not simple. There’s darkness about their choices, a lack of compassion, a singularity. There is no easy side to choose as the work unravels the complexities of both ancient and modern feminism.
Some of the most surprising performances come from Jane Longhurst and Mel King, two much loved and popular performers on Tasmanian stages. We’ve never seen them like this before. Hardened, complex, layered, brave and simultaneously utterly absorbing and intimidating. Rarely do we see female characters of such complexity on stage.
We’ve also never seen The Peacock Theatre look so completely right for a work. The set and costumes, designed by Jill Munro, refuses to fight the theatre’s quirks – its lack of stage exits or its famous rock wall at the rear of the stage. She embraces all these elements in her design with a set that hides, supports and translates the play’s journey. Dense with stone, wood, leather and metal it provides a deeply thoughtful link between the mythic and the modern, as does the thoughtful sound design of Jessica Dunn.
Tasmanian Theatre Company should be congratulated for bringing together this supremely talented team and taking a risk on this kind of work – five years in the making. It’s a superb fit in 2019’s Ten Days on the Island program: unflinchingly honest, brutally funny, world class and absolutely unique.
5 stars: ★★★★★
By Kate Mulvany
A Tasmanian Theatre Company and Ten Days on the Island co-production
Director: Leticia Cáceres
Designer: Jill Munro
Sound Designer: Jessica Dunn
Lighting Designer: Nicholas Higgins
Cast: Sara Cooper, Jane Johnson, Melissa King, Jane Longhurst and Ben Winspear
22-28 March 2019
Peacock Theatre, Salamanca Arts Centre, Hobart