Always My Sister. Written and directed by Michelanne Forster, starring Torum Heng, Jess Sayer & Chris Tempest, Costumes by Charlie Baptist, Lighting by Ruby Reihana-Wilson.
June 10-21. The Basement Theatre.
Michelanne Forster’s newest play, Always My Sister tells the story of Maggie Reardon, partner of Joseph Burns (whose grisly murder of Lt. Snow and his family shocked colonial Auckland), and her sister, Sophia Aldwell. The sisters’ silence in the murder’s wake almost condemned an innocent man. Forster talks in the programme of “being drawn to that female silence” in her work and, while it is a dynamic lens through which we can view history from a new angle, the 55-minute length deprives Forster of much opportunity to fully capitalise on the relationship.
With the play’s action spanning several years, temporal and spatial shifts relied heavily on expositional dialogue and Reihana-Wison’s lighting changes for demarcation. While I applaud the lighting design’s ability to mark this shift so subtly, it felt that Forster was asking a lot of the technology and the blocking did not adequately support Reihana-Wilson’s work. The inclusion of candles in mason jars either side of stage and on the black wall which diagonally traversed upstage-left were a nice touch, but the majority of them had snuffed themselves out ten minutes into the action, losing the eerie effect (I imagine) intended during blackouts.
The lack of any apparent set did not help with the action’s confusion – a haphazard arrangement of colonial-style items, including a trunk around which the props piled during the course of piece. Though I am not suggesting a play such as this requires a set, as such, it merely felt as though the actor’s blocking should have been structured in such a way that the audience could more easily read the action, rather than relying informative dialogue during the course of the scene. 55 minutes is not a lot of time to tell such a story and seemed that Forster sacrificed character development for exposition.
Sayer and Heng’s stage presence was undeniable. The two commanded the space, overcoming the script’s shortcomings to inject their characters’ journeys with a sense of gravitas that the script (and Tempest’s performance) lacked. Their investment in role resulted in several truly touching moments between the women, which were (frustratingly) broken too early to move the story along. For a play with a principal focus on the sororal bond, this apparent insistence by the script to hurry along the action seemed confusing. The moments of abstraction sometimes worked well (actors singing added an aural dynamism) and sometimes confused the piece (Heng’s character watched from side of stage for the duration – a device with an apparent function of emphasising the sisterly bond that wasn’t fully exploited)
Always My Sister was entertaining, though hurried, with the work of Sayer and Heng being a compelling enough reason for me to invest. Under the hand of a director with a more vitalising approach, the piece could have been tour-de-force of psychological tension. In this case, however, it seemed Forster failed to fully exploit her own material to its full potential.
Image credit: The Basement Theatre