Australian playwright Suzie Miller’s new play Transparency, developed by the National Theatre in London and premiering with Ransom Productions, explores the troubling issue of violent crimes perpetrated by children. The questions that these cases pose about the nature of evil, the limits of responsibility, and the balance between rehabilitation and punishment are explored through the relationship of Simon (played by Richard Dormer) and his wife Jess (Dorothea Myer-Bennett). As the play begins, the marriage is reaching a crisis because of Simon’s reluctance to start a family. His sudden unexplained outbursts of anger, his secrecy about his earlier life, and his reaction to being asked to play Santa at her Christmas party, provoke Jess’s curiosity. This is given a visible representation in the locked trunk that sits upstage right, supposedly a repository of childhood objects, only Simon can open it; and like Bluebeard’s wife, Jess insists on uncovering its secrets. Lending a sense of urgency to the unravelling story of Simon’s past, is the case of a missing toddler which is reported on radio and in direct audience address throughout the play.
Another couple, Camille and Lachlan (Abigail McGibbon and Richard Clements), provide Simon and Jess with opportunities to express their worries and doubts, and function as a key plot device when Camille reveals part of Simon’s terrible secret, forcing him to finally tell everything. Their struggle to adjust to parenthood and Lachlan’s developing affection for Jess, add to the tension. The final character is Andy (Alexandra Ford), Simon’s squash partner and rehabilitation coach, through whom we discover both his terrible secret, and the reason for his non-disclosure to Jess: his license depends upon him maintaining his new identity.
Stuart Marshall’s set design and James Whiteside’s design for the lighting create a sleek, minimal effect through which the various locations of the couple’s apartment, the forest during the search, and the squash courts where Simon and Andy meet are suggested. The muted colours and lighting convey the complexity of the subject matter, visually working through shades of grey. The panels downstage are transparent or opaque, depending on the lighting, suggestive of truth, secrecy, and transparency. A piece of art – a collage of x-rays of Jessica and Simon – allows the story of how they met to emerge and offers a glimpse of Simon’s childhood through the history of his thrice-broken arm, so that the figure of the abusive step-father lingers when Simon reveals his childhood crime. But the picture also comments on the impossibility of knowing another person: Jessica assumes she knows Simon because, as a radiographer, she has seen inside him.
The style of performance is very much that of a soap opera, with rapid episodic scenes shifting through space and time, dialogue that is often clichéd, and a somewhat simplistic characterisation that still incorporates hints of controversy – for example, Camille expresses her indifference to her baby. But the scope for complexity of characterisation is enormous: numerous tragic cases of child abuse and murder demonstrate that the instinct to protect offspring can be weaker than feelings between lovers and partners. Is Jessica’s apparently simple rejection of Simon therefore so inevitable? The dialogue also signals far too early what is to come, so that the audience have no time to be drawn into sympathy with Simon before they are aware that he is hiding something dreadful. It appears that the author has not quite decided where the real focus is: is it in the impact on the marriage of Simon’s revelation? Or is it the question of rehabilitation? Or are we to explore the depths of the character’s grief and regret, to arrive at a more empathetic approach to those who commit terrible crimes when they are young and vulnerable themselves?
Some of the problem is in the direction. Dormer is a talented actor, but he does not bring restraint to the role. The weight that he gives to Simon’s hints about his past, and the heightened playing from the beginning, leaves him nowhere to go when the tension and emotions reach their height. Similarly with Myer-Bennett’s portrayal of Jessica, where more nuanced playing might communicate a mixture of confusion, distress and shock. In contrast, Clements’ deft portrayal of the neighbour Lachlan allows the audience to draw inferences, see the slow unhappiness and disintegration of his marriage, and retain the capacity to be shocked and surprised. This production misses an opportunity to explore beyond the level of television and soap opera and really challenge the audience.
Lisa Fitzpatrick lectures in Drama at the University of Ulster.