One big MacGuffin


The Court Theatre’s current premiere production of Ross Gumbley and Allison Horsley’s Ropable has left me ruminating on the nature of pastiche in theatre, including the possibilities and dangers that are tied up with a play that is predicated upon simultaneously fulfilling and subverting expectations surrounding genre, character, and story. In particular, this is a show that makes some pretty strong and really quite interesting promises, particularly around the nature of its premise, but its delivery doesn’t entirely follow through and I’ve been thinking about why this might be structurally. Spoilers, etc. (NB: my response to the play is not in keeping with published reviews, so I’ve also posted links to some of the very warm reviews of the show at the end.)

Ropable is set in the MacGuffin Hotel, an isolated, sinister Alfred Hitchcock-themed B&B in the Pacific Northwest. (Kudos to the design team for realising the space in a manner that highlights the absurdity of the setting while making it legitimately unsettling.) American writer Eden (Chelsea McEwan-Millar) is at the hotel to marry the much-older celebrity and media personality Montgomery Parker (Cameron Rhodes). Parker is a randy old goat who had previously been married to her English mother, famous crime writer Constance (Eilish Moran), who we are told won’t be coming but who turns up anyway. (This hotel has been the site of Parker’s three previous weddings, too. Awkward.)  Eden’s beloved ‘Aunt’ Prudence (Lara Macgregor), a wonderfully doddery bit of small-town comic relief from Geraldine, is in attendance, as is the manager of the hotel, the authoritarian Austrian Norma Bates (Kathleen Burns, in fine comic form). If you have a working knowledge of Hitchcock’s oeuvre, then you’ll recognise many of the gestures throughout the action, and certainly the script and set are littered with Hitchcock-related gags and puns.

The show is bookended in a coy manner, too: at the outset, Eden, a greedy and frustrated ghostwriter who we ultimately come to realise is utterly unhinged, tells the audience directly that her plan is to murder her groom in an act that would put her crime-writer mother’s plotting efforts to shame, thus getting her the attention and admiration that her mother always denied her. There’s a storm, a drugging, a faked suicide, an actual murder, an unexpected visit from Eden’s mysterious father, a cheeseboard, some business with a corpse who has a massive boner, a cross and a double cross, some boozing, another murder, and so on. At the end of the play, it’s Constance who addresses us directly: she solves poor mad Eden’s crimes, proves her motherly love by taking the rap for the murders, and shoots straight to the top of the bestseller lists (added bonus).  This shift in subjectivity and perspective isn’t clearly marked as the play progresses, but it’s a nice structural conceit.

The show, then, is pastiche and homage, lovingly pasting together all manner of Hitchcockian(?) ephemera in a story that draws from the sorts of narratives, themes, characters and proclivities of the auteur’s films. My question here is: given all this scaffolding, what is the play’s contract with the audience? Is it that this is a twisty psychological thriller in the style of Hitchcock? A broad comedy that pillages Hitchcock’s back catalogue as material? A play that leverages the audience’s expectations of both? Does it succeed on any or even all of these fronts? Is the use of Hitchcock itself just a MacGuffin – a way of instigating and driving the plot forward?

The reason I’m asking these questions is that, counter to the positive opening night reviews I’ve linked to below, I found the show to be a very mixed bag. It has a hollow MacGuffinny Maltese Falcon’s worth of great ingredients (some very strong female actors, terrific source material, the goodwill of the audience, more lovely work by the Court’s talented design team, some very funny music) but it results in something that doesn’t cohere into a fully-formed, elegant and well-paced product.

Some context: I absolutely loved writer-director Ross Gumbley’s delightful production of The 39 Steps, staged some years ago now at the Court Theatre’s old premises in the Arts Centre; I have the sort of loving relationship and familiarity with Hitchcock that you’d expect from someone who researches and writes about and teaches film for a living; I am a big long-time fan of some of the women performing, and am happy in my heart of hearts to see a mainstage show that is female-centric. I entered full of good will and with high expectations. Ropable has an assertive and suitably enticing opening, but this impetus soon lags. By a few minutes into the second act I felt like it was falling to bits; as we left, my companion and I felt that the show’s set-up, resources and comic potential had been squandered. Issues of personal taste aside (such as the play’s frequent compulsion to explain what had been perfectly good standalone jokes*), everything felt a bit off kilter. My frustration is that the play in its current form doesn’t seem to know where it stands, or how to best fulfill its promises to the audience.

Is Ropable a farce – or, less restrictively, a physical comedy – that uses Hitchcock’s output as its surface level source material? Yes, kinda, there’s tumescent corpses and some swiftly timed entrances and exits and some shagging and some slapstick and a bit of comic violence. Lara Macgregor’s performance as Aunt Prudence is an obvious hit with the crowd, as are her scenes with the wonderfully sharp Eilish Moran as the two tucked into the Bailey’s and had a good girls’ night in. (Women getting pissed seems to be a fail-safe comic go-to at the moment.) Yet, the comic action doesn’t have the volume-to-11 impetus or cascading logical absurdity you’d expect from such a genre, and nor is its stage business anarchically complex or slick enough to really nail the genre. (It was interesting, too, listening to what the audience were laughing at, including the chuckling thigh-slapper next to me. Laughs seemed to come less from cumulative action, absurdity, wit and physical comedy than they did from bits of blue humour, the odd great line, and little moments of character or physical humour.)

Is it a Hitchcock-esque story of madness and treachery? Yes, kinda, but the twists and turns don’t always make sense or have significant psychological or emotional clout, and the play certainly isn’t a convincing or affecting portrait of a murderer. Consider theme, character, and form: Psycho’s mummy issues ostensibly inform the emotional core of the play’s plot, but where Norman takes on the persona of his own dead mother, here Eden ‘sees’ and is seemingly abetted by her Kiwi father, who is later revealed to be long dead. I got excited, too, when her father suddenly appears during the storm at the beginning of the second half, played by the same actor who plays her promiscuous, idiot husband-to-be, as I hoped that there would be some meaningful engagement with the important role of the uncanny, even malicious double in films like Vertigo. Nothing doing. His role and absence isn’t well signposted earlier on, though, so his appearance and later disappearance is met with an ‘oh ok’.

The later revelation that her father is actually dead, and that Eden’s the one who’s clubbed her lover to death with the telephoto lens from Rear Window, marks Eden as an unreliable narrator – great! yes please! – and our own perspective as confidantes and observers is muddied as we realise that our subjective viewing position has been compromised by Eden’s own madness. Unfortunately, Eden’s pretty poor at constructing the sort of crime plot that might confound anyone for too long, let alone her drunk, wedding-crashing mother. (“Oh, that must be the twist”, said the people sitting near to my companion; again, the power and danger of expectation.) Constance’s gear shift from drunken, irritated mother of the bride to hardened sleuth offers some great conflict, but the beats don’t always land.

Near the play’s climax, Connie tells Eden that Eden’s murder-mystery plot is full of holes. It’s true, Eden has proved herself to be a pretty sloppy criminal mastermind, but the play itself is full of the sorts of holes and patches that are all the more obvious because Hitchcock’s films are so tightly, cleverly and often wittily plotted. It is hard not to see this statement as a fudge – or, if it’s meant to flag some of the issues with the play’s action itself, then it doesn’t do so in a manner that is convincing. It’s a Goldilocks problem, for in being neither too hot nor too cold it can’t be reasonably sold as either, for the unravelling action of the second half doesn’t follow an internal logic. Many of the relationships and motivations don’t seem to add up, from Edie’s American accent (which felt more like something that needed to be there to fit the aesthetic, rather than something that came from her character and background), to the inconsistency in the emotional authenticity and the timelines that criss-cross the love-triangle between Edie and Norma and Monty, to the inexplicable local convenience of her Kiwi aunt, to Eden’s own motivations and backstory. Structurally, the play doesn’t hold water. Things seem to happen because they are necessary, but not because they are earned. The cumulative effect for me is that the magic soon went and the play unravelled, and that the comic business doesn’t make up for this.

Last year, when a review that I’d written about Showbiz’s production of Hairspray inexplicably made it to the front page of the local paper, there was an online comment in and among the usual shit-slinging dross that really irritated me. Someone who knows me somehow, using a pseudonym, said that I hated theatre, and I think the implication was that I take personal pleasure in nastily getting the boot in from my little self-involved spite-cave. It annoyed me because it was both cowardly and untrue. I love theatre. I love thinking and writing about it. I love research and dramaturgy. On the rare occasion that I get to do so, I love making it. I love the immediacy, I love the storytelling, I love being moved and surprised, and I really love figuring out how it works on emotional, structural, physical, technical and intellectual levels. Most of all, I desperately want theatre to be good, and more often than not to be better. In this case, I came away from Ropable disappointed and frustrated not because I’m a snotty grinch, but because within the wonderful premise and the publicity of this play there is a promise, and all other issues aside, this promise was unfulfilled.

I received a comp to this show, although not as a reviewer, and it runs until March 4 2017. You can read very positive reviews of the show at What’s Up Christchurch, Theatreview, and The Press.

*In fairness, some jokes, like a pretty funny one about feet and meter in poetry, did go over the heads of most of the audience.

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