nytheatre.com review by Julia Lee Barclay
August 17, 2011
The ambitions of this Australian one-woman show are large—to tell “the true-story about a little-known female actor, Virgie Vivienne, who brought Shakespeare to the desert in the 1890s, and tracks her life through Australia and Europe, love, tragedy, and of course theatre.”
The writer and performer Renee Newman-Storen uses found text, historical documents and her own writing to piece together her vision of who Virgie was. While the piece succeeded in making me want to know more about the historical Virgie Vivienne, Newman-Storen’s portrayal was not convincing.
Newman-Storen’s idea was to mash up news clips, scenes from Hamlet, a mystifying use of shadow behind a sheet (which added nothing I could discern to the story-telling), modern music and a kind of relentless smiling face to portray a woman who—from what historical facts were gleaned from this evening—must have been quite tough. I have seen this impulse in more shows than this one, when portraying a strong historical female character, to make her smile all the time. This decision never quite makes sense and usually is as grating as it appears to be ingratiating. I have no idea how Virgie Vivienne acted in the 1890s, but this cliché female actor persona does not ring true with the historical facts as presented.
I did not understand the use of contemporary music, which made scenes (which were according to the program notes attempting a "true-story" of a person living in the 1890s) seem more like a modern music video than an evocation of a woman living at the end of the 19th century in the Australian desert. There may have been some attempt at a Brechtian alienation technique here, but it did nothing to advance the audience’s understanding of Virgie or her social conditions, instead simply making it clear that there was an awkward disconnect between contemporary music and the historical period being shown.
There were interesting moments when the smiling Virgie was allowed to slip away and some more serious moments were engaged. This gave a sense of where this piece could have gone if we were allowed to penetrate the actual conflicts and realities of that time period and this woman and those surrounding her.
In this version, Virgie was portrayed periodically as not knowing her own story, which again, made no sense, as the actor Newman-Storen was not saying she did not know, but having Virgie personified saying she did not know. There is a difference between our lack of knowledge and Virgie’s own knowledge.
Finally, the dovetailing of lines from Hamlet into "real life" scenes seemed strained and did not either make the scene itself more poignant or lend any new insight onto Shakespeare.
If the piece was meant to be a collage that challenges ideas about storytelling, it needed to go further in that direction and not make any claims for being a true story. If it was meant to be a true story, more fidelity needed to be paid to the physicality and demeanor of this historical personage. In the event, it ended up feeling neither here nor there.
The subject matter, however, is quite intriguing, and for bringing this clearly brave and interesting woman to wider attention, the show should be commended.