A Kind of Alaska

Gary Anderson

THEATRE HUSK: A small but lofty converted industrial space tucked away off Heidelberg road is home to Theatre Husk. It’s chilly in winter but the theatre here is inviting. Works are played intimately with the audience sitting at times bare centimetres from the players.
A Kind of Alaska
Theatre Husk is a small but lofty converted industrial space tucked away off Heidelberg road. It’s chilly in winter but the theatre here is inviting. Works are played intimately with the audience sitting at times bare centimetres from the players. Husk is something of a passion and, under founders and artistic directors Trent Baker and Michele Williams, the company is getting increasing attention for small scale, high quality productions. Melbourne’s small but growing number of independent theatre groups attract discerning and committed audiences looking for points of departure many think are now impossible within the cost-accounted confines of larger permanent companies. As if innately feeling this artistic tension some of the larger houses- MTC’s Lawler space comes to mind,- have set smallish experimental spaces. Some offer access to works in progress at development workshops. These moves are as much about providing a conduit to authentic creative endeavour, unsullied by commercial constraints-as much to push innovation and develop talent. So on Saturday night I rugged up- no plush sets here and only on overworked reverse-cycle on the wall- and saw the Saturday performance of Harold Pinter’s A Kind of Alaska. Pinter’s play is based on the bizarre cases of the sleeping sickeness, Encephalitis lethargic, that swept Europe in a pandemic affecting millions during the First World War. The afflicted who survived might fall suddenly into a protracted sleep-like state, at one level aware of their surrounds but entirely lacking motivation or drive to the even the most mundane of needs. Oliver Sachs popularised awareness of the syndrome, which has utterly intrigued neurologists as much as philosophers, in his book Awakenings- later a film-, which recounts the miraculous but short lived reprieve afforded when the then newly developed medicine for Parkinson’s disease, L-dopa , was used intuitively. The Awakenings were remarkable but short lived and victims fell again too quickly into a hazy, irretrievable stupor. Pinter’s play, however, is unconcerned with either the medicine or science. Its focus is the very human and poignant experience of these reawakenings. It’s a three-hander. Deborah (Michele Williams) emerges from her protracted sleep attended by her physician, Hornby (Phil Roberts). Slowly she comes to realise her situation. Pinter’s text is masterful- it’s hard to expect less from the Nobel prize-winner- a slowly verbal deconvolution, an unfurling in fragments, remembrances and connections, that is completely convincing. Williams plays the role of Deborah with discipline, subtly and emotional range. In her opening scene she sits in her sick-bed and projects the awakening with accomplished constraint in a cadenced series of small facial expressions and tiny inclinations of the head and hands, creating an increasingly alive countenance that captivates your attention and counterpoints Pinter’s text with microscopically rendered physical acting. Williams’s performance is so strong that the work almost plays as a one-hander with two attendants. Roberts is secure and convincing in his role as the family physician, even if he seems a little unphased by the remarkable events, but Soper’s overweening performance as the dutiful widowed sister, well crafted as it was, did not play as a fully credible characterisation. Christina Logan-Bell designed the costumes and set with Lighting designer Lucy Birkinshaw. The setting is a simple sick bed and a desk in a black interior space. The play opens with a simple but highly effective visual metaphor. There is a light under the bed that at flickers on- like consciousness recovered-as the play begins. The climax of the play is harrowing as the awakening fades and Deborah contracts in a fear evaporation as the “walls” darkly converge again eclipsing her conscious existence. She sit there in her sick-bed descended again into an eternal sleep. As the lights flicker on so too they flicker off. In black silence we feel the disquiet inside as the mind realises this play is as much a metaphor of death and extinction of the mind in illness, as a window to help us look with empathy at a most improbable and hellish torment of the human soul. A Kind of Alaska By Harold Pinter Winterfall Theatre@ The theatre husk
What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Gary Anderson is a leading medical researcher based at the University of Melbourne and is currently completing a Masters in Contemporary Art at the Victorian College of the Arts.