The Other Place

Sharr White’s acclaimed drama, part mystery, part domestic tragedy, opens the MTC’s 2013 season.
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Dr Juliana Smithton (Catherine McClements) is accustomed to being the smartest woman in the room. So after an ‘incident’ at a pharmacological conference, during which the star neurologist begins talking to a young woman in a yellow bikini whom no-one else appears to see, she is understandably shaken, though keen to get on with life as normal – a life which includes her philandering husband, Ian (David Roberts) and her on-going attempts to salvage a relationship with her estranged daughter (Heidi Arena) and bitter son-in-law (David Whiteley).

New York-based playwright Sharr White’s acclaimed The Other Place, given its Australian premiere with this Melbourne Theatre Company production, is part domestic drama, part mystery, and quite fascinating. Juliana is an unreliable narrator, a device seen more often on the page than on the stage, though executed here with considerable panache. Over its 85 minute running time, as we learn more about Juliana and her affliction, the audience slowly begins to realise that not everything she tells us is true, or even real – to potentially devastating effect.

Unfortunately this production, directed by Nadia Tass (best known as the director of such films as Malcolm and Matching Jack) doesn’t quite make the most of its dramatic potential; nor does it move as much as it could. As Juliana, McClements is excellent; alternately brittle and forceful, frightened and furious, though a lack of chemistry between her and Roberts detracts from their flailing relationship; nor does Roberts fully convey his character’s anguish, confusion, and emotional turmoil in one of the role’s key scenes.Juliana and Ian’s arguments and dramas are nonetheless believeable and compelling, thanks to White’s controlled, considered script and McClements’ nuanced and compelling performance.

Playing multiple (albeit slightly two-dimensional) supporting roles, Arena seemed to be overacting somewhat on opening night; hopefully she will show more restraint as the season progresses. Whitely is solid but unremarkable in his undemanding roles.

White’s script deftly portrays the blurring of time and memories Juliana is experiencing, with constant flashbacks intercutting the scenes set in the present day. One especially significant flashback, the key to her trauma, smoothly segues into a powerful scene set in Juliana’s former Cape Cod home; the emotional and dramatic highlight of the production. The play’s final scene, alas, is a touch mawkish, with White’s text slightly overwhelmed by David Parker’s cinematography.

Shaun Gurton’s set is restrained and sparse, focussing attention on the characters, while jazz maestro Paul Grabowsky’s original compositions blend successfully and ominously with Russell Goldsmith’s brooding sound design.

Though flawed, The Other Place is a strong start to this much-anticipated year from the new team at the MTC.

Rating: 3 ½ stars out of 5

Melbourne Theatre Company presents

By Sharr White

Director: Nadia Tass

Set Designer: Shaun Gurton

Costume Designer: Edie Kurzer

Lighting Designer: Nigel Levings

Composer: Paul Grabowsky

Sound Designer: Russell Goldsmith

Cinematographer: David Parker

Voice & Dialect Coach: Suzanne Heywood

Directorial Secondment: Thomas Carmody

Cast: Heidi Arena, Catherine McClements, David Roberts and David Whiteley

Arts Centre Melbourne, Playhouse

26 January – 2 March

Richard Watts is ArtsHub's National Performing Arts Editor; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on Three Triple R FM, and serves as the Chair of La Mama Theatre's volunteer Committee of Management. Richard is a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, and was awarded the status of Melbourne Fringe Living Legend in 2017. In 2020 he was awarded the Sidney Myer Performing Arts Awards' Facilitator's Prize. Most recently, Richard was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Green Room Awards Association in June 2021. Follow him on Twitter: @richardthewatts