By Darby Turnbull
As I entered the Theatreworks auditorium last night, my interest was immediately piqued by Casey Harper-Wood’s fabulous set design. Featuring a home that looks like a cross between Norma Desmond’s Sunset Blvd mansion and the Golden Girls suburban Miami abode; it’s grand but grounded, timeless but comfortable and practical; it looks like a house that might appear in a Pedro Almodovar film. What kind of person lives in this space? Is it a sanctuary or a lair? A retreat or a private kingdom? This is the living room of one Amanda Redfern; a one-time movie star turned acting coach.
The premise of Joshua White’s play The Mentor is one ripe with dramatic potential; a green, untrained, idealistic apprentice entering the orbit of an old pro who’s seen it all and has more than a few bits of baggage on her shoulder should ignite with ideological conflict and nuanced exploration into the deep abyss of the entertainment industry and those that enter it’s sometimes sublime, mostly toxic orbit and either can’t escape or come back for more. The coup of this production is that he’s secured the real deal in Amanda Muggleton, one of the great Australian ladies of the stage, screen and the performance classroom. Paired with an intelligent, insightful Connor Morel it has all the essentials for vital, compelling drama but alas it was lost on me.
For the first half of White’s text, I was desperately looking for the hook that would invest me in these two characters and their arcs or at least their personalities but despite two very strong performances I was unable to find it. On reflection, I think I can attribute my resistance to (it’s happened quite a lot of late) being told what a play is about rather than it being dramatized with innovation or compelling insight. The whole conceit feels like a sketch but without colour or vitality, it relies heavily on tropes, rote characterisations, and heavy thematic signposts to hold up the structure of scenes let alone a whole play.
Jordan, the neophyte is almost completely devoid of personality, his attitude and naivete almost beggars’ belief in some moments. He often seems to exist to provoke Amanda into a speech about the essentials of acting or the misogyny of the industry without making him a participant with any strong convictions of his own. Morel brings sensitive sincerity to the role with enough callow arrogance to give him dimension and displays some early physical comedy that could have been utilised more.
Frustratingly the text is resistant to giving the two of them any kind of organic conflict besides what is manufactured. Their individual traumas feel ornamental rather than ingrained. Jordan expresses a deep desire to act for the sake of acting but we never get any sense of what kind of actor he is in practice and he’s so thoroughly resistant to Amanda’s teachings at every turn, even down to not being able to connect to her as a scene partner or doing any introspection into the texts that he’s assigned.
There’s potential for both those things if Amanda’s teaching practices were more unorthodox, challenging, or unethical or his motives were shallower but we’re being made to believe these two are developing a deep, meaningful bond and I just don’t see it. Amanda is eccentric and jaded but she’s given very little do beyond articulate what we already know, the entertainment industry chews up actresses when they’re young then spits them out making them either compromise or abandon their career trajectories. The text wants to prioritise a mature woman’s voice and experiences but doesn’t quite know how to do it beyond giving her some flamboyant tics and a melodramatic backstory to explain away some of her sharper edges. What kind of an actress is she? Where does she fit within the cultural dichotomy? We hear she hit big and then reverted to being more a creative for hire. Writing about veteran creatives is rife with challenges because they often become mouthpieces for the state of art or representatives of a culture that is moving in a way where they don’t know their place. Josh Logan’s RED or Terrance McNally’s Masterclass among them.
I do appreciate that Amanda Redfern isn’t some Miss Havishamesque narcissistic recluse pouring over her faded glory and has set herself up quite nicely it seems, but does she have opinions or gaps in knowledge about where the industry has gone or where it’s going? Amanda Muggleton’s presence and charisma can do a lot, having her spit out a line like ‘Who the fuck is Florence Pugh?’ is delicious (though more effective the first time around) and bitterly lamenting her desirability being dismissed with age is genuinely powerful because you feel her years of experience and stature as a human and artist coming through. But what does it mean when she tells a young actor having a panic attack they need to ‘toughen up’. If she’s going to assign an intimate scene to her younger male student and have him recoil what does that infer? Is she crossing an ethical boundary, is she testing him, did she not consider the implications and an actor to be that squeamish when she’s not, as far as we know, putting him in an uncomfortable position beyond having to play a scene actor to actor why doesn’t he just get on with it?
The teacher-student, mentor-mentee relationship is electric when captured authentically, the invigoration of learning and development and mutual growth that comes from sharing knowledge and skills. Potent drama could be built from Jordan learning about different vocal inflections, nailing a scene for the first time, emerging from his comfort zone; co-dependency could be developed, crossings of boundaries that occur organically in a creatively transactional working relationship where the shifts in power either change or become ambiguous.
Christian Cavallo’s production is neatly efficient with an admirable facilitation of the space for the creatives to really connect with each other and embrace their shifting dynamics. Jason Bovaird’s lighting creates some gorgeous tones and arresting images against Harper Wood’s set and frames Muggleton’s face arrestingly during her moments alone. I must confess to being somewhat confused by Justin Gardam’s sound design whose eerie, suspenseful score seems tonally anachronistic to the action and when put in full contrast to the dramaturgy doesn’t feel ultimately complimentary.
Whilst I struggled with the text, it’s always fun to see Amanda Muggleton continue to prove why she’s one of our national treasures with her warm, flamboyant and charismatic presence and her willingness to lend her expertise to an emerging playwright is laudable. Watching a legend play a legend is often revealing and compelling and she creates a strong portrait of a person devoted to her craft despite it not always showing the same devotion to her.
Images: Lucinda Goodwin