What: Vale, written by Nicki Bloom, directed by Geordie Brookman, presented by State Theatre Company South Australia
When: Until 3rd December 2017
Where: Dunstan Playhouse
How much: Adult: $74, Concession: $64, Under 30s: $33, Secondary Students: $29
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“A good investment, that girl,” says Joseph Vale of his daughter as reflects upon his success. This line, one of the first a play which delights in slowly drip feeding the audience information, sets the tone for the rich exploration of power and privilege, and familial and gender relationships that are to follow.
Vale was originally commissioned as a final year production for NIDA, and is brought to Adelaide with a revised version of playwright Nicki Bloom’s original script. The play begins as a light family drama. Power couple Joseph (Mark Saturno) and Tina Vale (Elena Carapetis) wait for their daughter and her new boyfriend, both recently graduated from law school, in the penthouse suite of the flagship of their self-built hotel chain. The pair arrives late and Isla (Tilda Cobham-Hervey), their brash 22-year old daughter, proceeds to joust with her parents, while Joseph plays the part of a domineering father, testing his daughter’s suitor, Angus (James Smith). The characters spar with sizzling wit and there are plenty of laughs to be had early on. However, from the very beginning there is the impression of something malevolent simmering just below the surface of this comedy of manners, and as the play progresses this tension is pulled thinner and thinner until it tears wide open after Angus’ mother, Diana (Emma Jackson), arrives unexpectedly.
Although the piece was originally written in 2015, its themes feel incredibly topical. The braggadocious hotelier Joseph Vale was not written with Donald Trump in mind, but it is difficult not to see Trump reflected in Vale’s obsessive self-aggrandisement. According to director Geordie Brookman, the gaudy penthouse suite in which the play is set was inspired by Trump’s hotels.
The play also feels topical in the power dynamic it explores between its male and female characters, as we have seen play out all too vividly in the recent Weinstein scandal. The play is a considered exploration of the relationships between parents and children, but at its core it exposes the toxic ways in which men and women are conditioned to relate to one another. Throughout the play we see Joseph and Angus attempt to assert their dominance in various ways, while Tina, Diana, and Isla each fight to be heard, respected, and validated. The male characters peddle in shame, gas-lighting, and dominance displays in order to control and suppress their female counterparts, while the women of this play also weaponise their internalised misogyny against one another. Bloom presents a visceral demonstration of the destructive results of this behaviour.
Although it is fascinating to watch this dark family drama unfold, there are times when the momentum slips. Towards the end of the play some of the dialogue teeters back towards the dark comedy of the first act, breaking the energy of the highly-charged scenes as the narrative reaches its climax. The denouement also verges on trying to do too much and leaves the thematic clarity of the rest of the play slightly muddied.
However, Nicki Bloom’s manipulation of dramatic tension is masterful, underpinned by the eerie cello sounds of Hilary Kleinig’s score. A strong cast supports this compelling script. Carapetis’ Tina and Saturno’s Joseph are particularly forceful in showing us the fundamental fragility of two individuals preoccupied with the performance of power and success.
Vale is a captivating piece of theatre that will leave you with plenty to think about.
4 out of 5 stars
— Felicity Brooks