Splinter is a haunted story of a family reunited in the wake of chaos.
Lucy Bell and Simon Gleeson in Splinter. Image: Brett Boardman.
It’s been nine months since the Man (Simon Gleeson) and the Woman (Lucy Bell) have seen and held their daughter Laura. The girl vanished into thin air from the family’s home. Now she’s back and the parents are overwrought with joy.
In a protective act, they rush the child back to their beach house — not even letting the police question her. There’s no clue as to where Laura has been that whole time. Who and what has she endured? It’s here in this quiet place, near the water and the cliffs, that the Man and the Woman attempt to stitch their lives back together with Laura’s favourite soup, Laura’s favourite toys, Laura’s favourite rock on the foreshore.
However, the couple’s fear, doubt and, eventually, repulsion quickly seep into the fabric. In a nod to gothic horror and tales of changelings, the Man is convinced that the child-like figure suckling at his wife’s breasts is not his Laura. He’s not even sure she’s a child at all.
Bell gives a nuanced physicality to her performance of the Woman. She is drunk on the love of a mother reunited with her baby. She intimately wraps her body around the child and similarly crumples into her despair as the Man revolts with thoughts more seething by the moment.
Gleeson begins with a theatrical touch that feels too much for the intimacy of Griffin's tiny Stables theatre. It does, however, grow more convincing as he collapses into a vortex of summons and repulsion. As Gleeson watches nightly over Laura in her bed, he is both keeping watch and staging a vigil. He reads the child for proof that she is still Daddy’s little girl, but each act, smell and sight makes him gag. Gleeson’s performance keeps us privy to the fact that this is not simply a father mourning a more ‘normal’ kind of life.
That both Gleeson and Bell are playing off nothing at all in their interactions with Laura is chilling and effective (and totally to their credit and that of director, Lee Lewis). When Bell is overflowing with love as she brushes the child’s hair, it’s as if she’s dancing with the coastal wind itself. It’s both a tender act of love and an icy foreshadowing. Gleeson’s descent is potent against Laura’s invisibility. While at first his Play School camping is met with the silence of a child unimpressed or even scared, the vacant space of his daughter is rapidly filled with his acts of abandonment, rejection and loss.
The beach house set design by Tobiyah Stone Feller feels intimate and dusty in the ways that family holiday homes often are. Thin and vaguely transparent walls give the home a flimsy and suspicious mood.
Benjamin Brockman’s tealight design evokes pleasant holiday warmth, as well as an uncomfortable sense of votive offering. And Mic Gruchy and Alyx Dennison’s visual and audio compositions work nicely together to create some much-needed atmosphere with their moody shadow-show.
There is however something missing. Stories of vanished children and ambiguous loss are so much a part of the Australian psyche and, yet, Hilary Bell’s writing doesn’t seem to grab hold to the grit of all this substance. There is a feeling that this is any time, any place, rather than this place. In the intimacy of the Stables, I want to be totally overcome. Instead, I left a bit disturbed by my own ambivalence to the horrors of the final scene.
3 stars out of 5 ★★★
Director: Lee Lewis
Composer/Sound Designer: Alyx Dennison
Video Designer: Mic Gruchy
Lighting Designer: Benjamin Brockman
Designer: Tobhiyah Stone Feller
Stage Manager: Rebecca Poulter
Cast: Lucy Bell, Simon Gleeson
6 September-12 October 2019
SBW Stables Theatre, Sydney NSW