Theatre of Therapy: Review of Apocalypse Theatre’s Construction of the Human Heart
Construction of the Human Heart (2007) is Australian playwright Ross Mueller’s exploration of grief. It features two playwrights who are trying to write a play about two playwrights who are trying to write a play. This description probably already has a lot of people rolling their eyes – ‘yet another self-aware play about theatre, like we need that.’ Mueller’s play starts out looking like it is going to be another extended navel-gazing exercise. But then something different happens.
This isn’t a play about theatre, per se. Yes, it is self-aware, but it’s about something much more genuine: it is a study of the grieving process. Actors Michael Cullen and Cat Martin play two characters who are only ever referred to as Him and Her. The couple are a playwriting duo who have recently lost their only son, Tom, to some unspecified disease or accident. The play they are attempting to write is their way of coping. ‘I make up stories about him’, she says, stories where he is still alive and well. This is all they have, this is their coping mechanism. Together they relive and rehash the past, recreating the moments when they were happy and whole. It’s the only thing that keeps them going, but it cannot block out the pain of the present, nor adequately substitute the past.
As far as plot goes this is pretty much it. But the draw card for this production is the performances. Cullen and Martin have a real chemistry on stage. They both manage to capture that ever so slightly pretentious, faux-intellectual quality of the would-be, brilliant playwright. But behind this front they both allow the gut-wrenching grief they carry to slowly leak out, and we witness their struggle and gradual collapse. Indeed the two have been brought to breaking point and we get to see the conflict that arises between them brought on by the pain. They are obviously a couple that love each other dearly, but the loss of their son has placed a tremendous strain on their relationship, and even at the close of the play we cannot tell if they will be able to weather the tragedy. To see two actors allowing themselves to be totally vulnerable on stage is rare and moving treat.
Construction of the Human Heart may not be a play for everybody. Director Dino Dimitriadis offers up an empty stage, two chairs and pages of typed script, made to resemble the most basic of rehearsal spaces. The dialogue can be a little flowery in places. But there is a genuine and tragic story to be told about the effect of grief and how people struggle to live with it. There may not be a lot of plot, but this play more than stands up on the strength of its performances, which is well worth the trip in.
Construction of the Human Heart is playing at the Tap Gallery until the 3rd of May. For more information see: http://www.apocalypsetheatrecompany.com/