‘I was desperately waiting for something to throw me off, to make me sit up and really pay attention’: Blind reviewer Olivia Muscat attends an audio-described performance of The Architect
Before I took my seat for The Architect at the Melbourne Theatre Company, I was taken on a tactile tour of the set. It’s always a bit fun to get on to the stage, but given the play took place entirely in the living area of an East Balwyn home, this tactile tour felt mostly like walking around someone’s house. In other words, it felt a bit superfluous.
The audio describers came along for the tour, which was led by the stage manager. They were very intent on getting everyone to have a good look at the can of deck oil, which led me to be far too focused on that particular prop once the show started. In the end, it was just a can of deck oil.
For much of the opening scene, I found my mind wandering. Helen (Linda Cropper) and John (Nicholas Bell) are interviewing prospective candidates as carers for Helen while John is away on a week long trip. Helen has insisted on a female carer, but the next interviewee is a man. There is much back and forth about this error and it’s no surprise when he ends up being hired.
I knew something was wrong with Helen, but I wasn’t especially interested in finding out what it was. I was watching two middle-aged, middle class, white people talk about middle-aged, middle class, white people things and I wasn’t particularly interested.
When Lenny (Johnny Carr) arrives, a young, tattooed, working class guy, it appears to change the dynamics of the story; at least, on the surface. But it turns out that Lenny is near infallible. He can cook (in fact he’s been a contestant on Master Chef), clean, garden, fix things around the house, and entertain and tease Helen without ever seeming to cross the line into disrespect. I couldn’t help hoping for more conflict, humorous or otherwise. I was amused enough watching their interactions and I enjoyed the friendship that sprang up between them. But even so, I never completely entered the story. I found myself distracted by small details, such as being charmed by the sounds of bird song, which felt so very “Melbourne” to me. Or wondering why, if the turntable hadn’t worked in years, was a record just sitting on it?
The final scene of act one finally drew me in, partly due to the reveal of Helen’s terminal brain cancer, but mostly thanks to this taking place over a baby monitor. That felt genuine to me, like other similar touches through the course of the evening. When somebody is dying, the mundanities of life don’t just pause and wait for you to be ready. When the coffee machine interrupted a serious conversation, or the can of deck oil kept causing confusion, I began to feel a window of empathy for these characters.
I expected Helen’s estranged son Jeremy (Stephen Phillips) to be an invisible, silent character, so when he appeared in act two I was taken by surprise. When Jeremy and John accuse Lenny of having sinister designs on Helen’s will, there were a few seconds where I was on the edge of my seat, thinking that it could go either way. Had I been sucked in by Lenny’s seeming perfection? It turns out, no, I hadn’t. He had a plausible explanation for every accusation levelled against him.
And so my mind continued its wanderings. I was watching the play, but constantly thinking about something else at the same time. I was desperately waiting for the story to take an unexpected turn: something to throw me off, to make me sit up and really pay attention.
Towards the end, the family has a sort of pre-wake for Helen, and once again my mind went wandering. It felt too perfect and over the top, and I couldn’t help comparing it to experiences in my own life which were not so perfectly timed and worded. I realise that yes, it’s theatre, so it is going to be perfectly timed and worded because it’s scripted. But this story had the potential to draw me in, chew me up and spit me out as a crying mess. Instead I was coolly observing, wondering why on earth Lenny, who had been involved with this family for barely a week, was the only stranger present at this celebration.
Oh, and when I found out why, I was nearly in tears. But it wasn’t because of Helen’s choice to be the architect of her own life. It was the fact that the responsibility of ending her life was left to Lenny, after Jeremy threw out the medication that John and Helen had acquired to end her life. All I could think was, why is he doing this to himself? Hasn’t he been through enough already?
It shocked and annoyed me that John and Jeremy would be able to grieve for Helen, knowing that she died on her own terms, and then get back to their middle-aged, middle class, white person lives, leaving Lenny to deal with killing somebody. In the end, Lenny was the character I felt for most. I didn’t walk away thinking about Helen and how she chose to die; I walked away thinking how cruel it was for these people to somehow convince this sweet, working class youth to do their dirty work and suffer the consequences.
Something else that sent my mind spiralling away from the story was the voice of the audio describer in my ear. In the Vision Australia model of audio description, a show is described by two people who take one act each. The person who was describing act one of this show kept talking over dialogue, which is considered to be a no-no. It made me flinch every single time. I doubt I missed anything vital, but it was beyond frustrating. Especially when I could identify many breaks in the dialogue that were perfect for inserting description.
On the other hand, the fact that none of the actors were miked allowed me to have a very clear sense of the orientation of the action, which I very much appreciated. I enjoyed the acting and I loved the sound design, but the story and the characters left me feeling distant and untethered.
The Architect, by Aidan Hennessy, directed by Peter Houghton. Set and costume designs by Christina Smith, lighting design by Matt Scott, composition and sound design by J David Franzke. Performed by Nicholas Bell, Linda Cropper, Johnny Carr and Stephen Phillips. The Sumner, Southbank Theatre, Melbourne Theatre Company.