THE WEEKEND, Upstairs at Belvoir St Theatre, 10 August-10 September 2023. Photography by Brett Boardman
Bestselling, award-winning author Charlotte Wood long ago perfected the knack of appealing to the intellectual pretensions of the middle class book club. It’s a siren song and lures readers and fans in their thousands. Mostly women, mostly middle-aged, they have the money and time to follow their preoccupation: to bookshops, to signings, to readings, to festivals, and to the wine and snacks around each other’s coffee tables. Without ever intending to do so, they shift books by the tonne and make things happen in other spheres too – stage adaptations, for instance.
Wood’s 2019 chart-topper, The Weekend, is one such. It’s listed on publisher Allen & Unwin’s website thus: Shortlisted, Best Fiction, Indie Book Awards, 2020, Winner, Literary Fiction Book of the Year, ABIA Awards, 2020, Shortlisted, Stella Prize, 2020, Long-listed, Miles Franklin Award, 2020, Shortlisted, ALS Gold Medal, 2020, Shortlisted, Adult Fiction Book of the Year, ABA Booksellers' Choice Awards, 2020, Shortlisted, Best Fiction, Prime Minister's Literary Awards, 2020, Shortlisted, Christina Stead Prize for Fiction, NSW Premier's Literary Awards, 2021.
Then with Covid stirring locked down imaginations all over the place, Sue Smith, (Australian Writers’ Guild Lifetime Achievement Award 2018) approached Belvoir: let’s adapt the book for the stage. Smith’s credits go back to the unforgettable Brides of Christ (ABC TV, 1991) and since then she had turned out some of the more indelible and humane characters ever to occupy a screen and latterly, a stage. So: why not?
In essence, The Weekend was the perfect book for its middle class market. However that foundation is too thin to properly support a play beyond the core fan base – ironically, most theatre-goers and reviewers! Here’s how it goes: Sylvie has died. She was one of a quartet of lifelong friends and the surviving trio is spending a few days clearing out her holiday house on the NSW Central Coast to prepare it for sale. For decades it was where they gathered and where much of their lives were discussed, picked over and dreamed about.
Now they’re in their 70s, including the dog Finn whose appearance in the book is memorable (who couldn’t smell the old hound and shudder at his decrepitude?) On stage he is a brilliant puppet, made by Indigo-Rose Redding and wondrously manipulated by Keila Terencio. Watching him totter about, listening to magpies or messages from beyond, it’s impossible not to be enchanted and also think of WC Fields’ dictum to never appear with animals or children. Finn is a scene-stealer and heartbreaker by turn. The humans don’t stand a chance – with the exception of Belinda Giblin.
Giblin is Adele, an actress who can’t get a callback, is remembered for roles from decades ago, and is quietly desperate as she’s broke, her partner has given her the boot and it’s coming up to Christmas. Giblin’s brittle, merry demeanour as she dances as fast as she can, is but one facet of a fully-realised woman whose plight is excruciating.
Fine actors Melita Jurisic – as storied academic Wendy – and Toni Scanlan as retired yet still renowned restaurateur Jude, don’t have such clear or concrete characters. By comparison with Finn and Adele, theirs are insubstantial creations. There's a lot of standing around indulgently watching Adele – when not grouchy and bossy (Jude), or lost in the thesaurus of her mind (Wendy). Roman Delo’s fleeting appearances as a prattish theatre director suggests a non-prattish future lies ahead.
There are moments of truth and humour, yet the women teeter on the edge of caricature. Or, if they had been written today, they might have come into being via a well-directed set of instructions to ChatGPT. When not creating colour and movement out of not very much, director Sarah Goodes makes the most of Stephen Curtis’s elegant stage design: a circular timber deck in an atmospherically lit void (lighting Damien Cooper), with outdoor table and benches and plenty of empty wall for Susie Henderson’s coastal woodland video projections. These are beautifully complemented by Steve Francis’s composition and Madeleine Picard’s sound design of fragmentary music and Nature.
The Weekend will be loved by The Weekend audience. That makes it a curious return to Belvoir’s traditional audience which has been feeling hard done by in recent years as the company became more diverse and less white middle class. Not necessarily good for box office, though, so The Weekend may explain a lot.