BETWEEN THE STREETLIGHT AND THE MOON
BETWEEN THE STREETLIGHT AND THE MOON, MopHead Productions and bAKEHOUSE Theatre Co at the Kings Cross Theatre, 9-27 May 2017. Photography by Clare Hawley: above - Joanna Downing and Lucy Miller; below - Suzanne Pereira
Paris is eternally captivating – to generations of artists and writers in particular – and most recent slave to its fascination is Australian playwright Melita Rowston. Inspired by a month in the city she wrote Between The Streetlight and the Moon and it was shortlisted for the STC’s 2016 Patrick White Playwright Award.
The award was won by Neil Levi, for his play Kin, described on the website as “an ‘absurdist tragedy’ about the ins-and-outs of grief, suffering and responsibility”. In a curious way, that could also be a description of Rowston’s play, with its absurdist elements, a tragic outcome and motifs of grief and suffering within the artistic impulse, and the consequent responsibility taken – or shirked – by those closest to it.
In a lucidly directed production by Anthony Skuse, London-based art academic Zadie (Lucy Miller) is preoccupied to the point of obsession by her suspicion that Edouard Manet and his model/muse and fellow artist Berthe Morisot were lovers. The play opens strongly with large-scale images of Impressionist paintings projected on a white wall as Zadie propounds feminist art theory and argument to her colleague and doctoral supervisor Janet (Suzanne Pereira) and a student, French firecracker Dominique (Joanna Downing).
It’s an engaging idea, credibly constructed by Rowston and speculated about at length over the years by many others, that Manet and Morisot were more than co-workers. In the play, Zadie is persuasive that it can be deduced from his paintings of the time as well as oblique references in letters. What is also highlighted in these wrangles is the undisputed fact of women’s lower position on the rungs of the art establishment ladder and also, the way females were (and frequently still are) portrayed as objects of the male “gaze”.
The title refers to a moment in earlier years when Zadie is ridiculed by her artist lover Jeff (Lani Tupu) when she mistakes a streetlight for the full moon. And as well as being a difficult title to remember, it puts a dent in the plausibility of the scenario for no good reason other than to introduce the plot strand that has Zadie as a successful artist who was madly and destructvely in love with Jeff.
The advent of Barry (Ben McIver), another male artist, younger, brasher and as obnoxious as Jeff, further muddles the initial clarity and sense of purpose. In the beginning Zadie and Janet clash over the common problem for female artists and academics – being taken seriously by the grey men in control – when she is obviously unable to finish her thesis. Later it’s revealed that she had once been a fabulously talented painter but that came to grief on the rocks of Jeff and the street light – after which she retreated to academe. Or something like that.
And at some point in the 120 minutes-no interval, when preposterous burglaries are taking place and Jeff is revealed as a ghost of humiliations past and Barry has become unjustifiably successful, it all becomes a bit too much. Or too little, or more like the irretrievable brown morass on a palette which always happens to the squirts of individually bright pigments when they’re mixed up together.
Between The Streetlight and the Moon seems to be a mix of at least two plays and one of them is much more interesting and worthwhile than the other. The arguments and ideas around Manet, Morisot, feminist art theory and women’s position in the worlds of art and academe are a lot brighter and more vivid than the conventional and stereotypical affairs: if Jeff were to be killed off even earlier in the action by not ever actually making an appearance at all, it would possibly solve a lot of unnecessary problems and questions.
Nevertheless, this is the play’s first production and as such it has many appealing moments that are brought to life primarily by Miller and Downing, while Pereira’s is a dynamic role that could well do with more fleshing out and stage time. To the side of the beautifully handled and difficult playing area (audients face each other from two sides, Skuse makes it look easy), an improvised sound score lifts and punctuates the action – played live on piano by composer Benjamin Freeman.
The Chris Page’s lighting of the elegant white set and attractive costumes by Jeremy Allen make a strong visual and dramatic impact. And the decision to have blank white canvases as the work of the living artists is the best (rather than the lousy paintings often seen in plays about great art!) There’s still work to be done on Between The Streetlight and the Moon, but there’s also a lot to be enjoyed in this production.