First Nations Emerging Critic Carissa Lee is transported to a cold place in OpticNerve’s Polygraph
Walking from the Theatre Works foyer, we pass through clear door-flaps like those in a meat freezer. Blue fluorescent lights line the path, adding to the sense of chilliness as we enter the performance space. Jelle Jager and Betty Auhl’s set is a naked stage, with lights lining the floor and a kind of metal scaffolding towards the back of the stage. More door-flaps hang from the scaffolding, creating a separated section in the back. The addition of smoke and the shivering actors transport us into a much colder place.
Polygraph, by Ex Machina’s Robert Lepage and Marie Brassard, is essentially about male grief, and how men project it onto women. It explores how the murdered women they love haunt them, and the ways in which men can hurt one another for their idea of some greater good. These men damage the women they care about, exploiting them so they can transcend their own grief: they reproduce trauma, infecting the ones they love.
The performance begins with an altercation between a man and woman Francois (Lachlan Woods) and Marie-Claude (Emily Thomas). An act of violence off-stage results in the woman’s corpse centre stage, clad only in her underwear. David (Grant Cartwright) conducts an autopsy and presents his findings to the audience, in a scene interwoven with Francois presenting facts about Berlin.
This style of interwoven performances, two or three narratives happening at once, is a constant thread throughout Polygraph. The polished direction of Tanya Gerstle makes these parallel performances, with their Pina Bausch-esque scene transitions, seamless and beautiful to watch, despite the raw content. The only time this felt contrived was when David scaled the scaffolding, climbing across it for periods of time: although it was impressive, I couldn’t see what it was supposed to symbolise. If anything, it intensified my annoyance that Emily Thomas in corpse-mode had to move herself from the crime scene to the autopsy table, because it was clear that Cartwright could have lifted her. This was probably a style choice, but it felt a bit disjointing.
Criminologist David meets Lucie (also played by Thomas), who reminds him of his lost lover Anna (wonderfully represented through short split-scenes within scenes by Thomas). This plays out alongside Francois’ tortured presence, as he seeks masochistic redemption for the death of Marie-Claude, doubting his own innocence because of an inconclusive polygraph.
The two men are linked by the character of Lucie, who is pursuing a career as an actor: she is Francois’ neighbour and friend, and David’s lover. As an actor she is continually reduced to a gasping object of male brutality, both in the part she must play, and also by demands on set, as she’s asked to take her top off and cry on cue. “You look tired,” says David in one scene. “Playing a victim is tiring,” she replies, summing up her constant struggle. Her turmoil takes an even darker turn when it is revealed that the victim she is portraying in this film is Marie-Claude.
The music is atmospheric, ranging from heavy orchestral pieces that respond to actor’s cues, to steady and repetitive sound that reflects nightclub or café setting. There are a couple of scenes with cheesy saxophone music, which feels like an off attempt at film noir, but thankfully that not too many. A microphone in the sectioned-off part at the back of the stage functions to indicate flashbacks for each character. However, it never seemed to work, and the actors had to shout to be heard, and the integrated flashbacks within the scenes are delivered so well by the actors I felt it was unnecessary.
The symbolism within the transitional moments are visually engaging and created some strong imagery that sticks with me. An unravelling sheet that emerges from the pregnant Anna’s stomach; strewn books that Lucie and David jump across in a childish game; the chalk outline that David drew around a sleeping Lucie that reminds us that she can never really escape her role as an unwilling vessel of grief.
The most powerful scenes are spoken in French, by Lucie and Francois. I had no way of knowing what they were saying, but it didn’t matter. Lucie’s final monologue, the realisation that she finally gets to cry, for herself and no one else, is one of the last images we see.
The ensemble is strong, dealing well with their workload of accents, bilingual dialogue, physical theatre, sharp transitions and costume changes. Lachlan Woods brings a vulnerability to Francois, but with a sense of danger underneath the surface despite his trauma, which left me questioning his innocence and his intentions. Grant Cartwright is eerie as David: although he has moments of charm, there’s something off-kilter about him, and he maintains this imbalance throughout the performance.
The stand-out for me is Emily Thomas, who undergoes fearless and various emotional acrobatics as each character. There is a potential in the text to let the actor embrace playing the victim at the hands of these men, which would certainly be the easier option; but Thomas rages against it in every scene. For a fellow actor, these choices were refreshing and inspiring.
Seeing yet another woman’s death be the source of a man’s suffering and indication of character was a little trying, but it was mitigated by highlighting the weakness of the men and by the strength of Thomas’ performance. Gerstle’s direction refused to permit the female characters become a collective of tragedy. In Thomas’ performance, they were her stories, and these men were the wreckage she left behind.
Polygraph by Robert Lepage and Marie Brassard, directed by Tanya Gerstle. Set designed by Jelle Jager and Betty Auhl, sound by Matt Furlani. Performed by Grant Cartwright, Emily Thomas and Lachlan Woods. OpticNerves at Theatreworks until July 29. Bookings
CONTENT WARNING: This show contains nudity and heavy adult themes. Some scenes in this production make reference to rape, murder and suicide. If this production raises any issues for you, please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 (24/7). Further resources are also available at lifeline.org.au.
To discuss potentially triggering content please contact Theatre Works Box Office (9534 3388) or speak with a member of staff.