Hotel Sorrento runs at the Genesian Theatre from 18 January – 22 February 2014. By Hannie Rayson, directed by Shane Bates.
One thing I like, and have always liked, about Hannie Rayson’s Hotel Sorrento is the way it engages with complex issues of art and cultural identity and the role of women and what it means to be Australian and does not resolve them. These issues are complicated, the show seems to say, and I’m not even going to pretend to have a solution when it’s so hard to express what the problem even is. It’s a show with no hero and no villain. Instead, it just has people, people who are trying to muddle through the best that they can, and who love each other, even though they might not like each other very much.
For context, the basic outline of the show is this. Three sisters – Hilary (Sarah Purdue), Meg (Melanie Robinson) and Pippa (Gemma Munro) – grew up together in the 1950s in a little town on the Mornington Peninsula called Sorrento, with an affable but usually drunk father and a mother forced to bear the burden of the whole family. When the show begins, it’s 1991. The mother is long dead, as is Hilary’s husband. She has stayed in the family home in Sorrento, taking care of her now aged father (Barry Moray) and her teenage son Troy (in a wonderful performance by fifteen year old Oliver Beard). Pippa has moved to the US but is back in Australia consulting for an advertising firm. Meg has lived in the UK for many years with her husband Edwin (Martin Bell). Her novel Melancholy, about three sisters growing up in a small coastal town in the 1950s (which she insists is not autobiographical), has just been nominated for the Man Booker Prize. As the sisters are drawn back to Sorrento, they are forced to come to terms not only with their past, but with their future.
The production that Genesian Theatre has put together is a good one. I don’t think it’s a great one, but it’s certainly a good one. It’s well-balanced, which I think is important. If one of the three sisters is overshadowed, it’s probably Pippa, but I think the script is as much at fault there as the production. It’s not heavy-handed in its direction – we aren’t shepherded towards identifying with Hilary or Meg or any other character. The action unfolds quite simply and beautifully at times (although it is hampered by a set that is way too clunky and fiddly for such a picaresque play – moments which should be quite poignant are ruined by scene changes on several occasions). I greatly enjoyed the performance of Sarah Purdue as Hilary, Melanie Robinson as Meg, and especially Lynn Turnbull Rose as Marge, the English teacher who has read and deeply identifies with Meg’s book. (Turnbull Rose reminded me so much of Jill Forster as Meredith on the classic ABC series Seachange in this role, and I thought it was just perfect.)
But what holds this production back is the fact that sometimes I felt like it didn’t know what it was talking about. Points about literature and the domestic and especially about feminism, all of which are explicitly addressed in the script, seemed glossed over. This is a very even production – and don’t get me wrong, consistency is a good thing. But sometimes I felt like some moments weren’t given the weight they deserved. This happened especially with the character of Dick (Rob White), political journalist who objects strenuously to the way Meg as an expatriate characterises and criticises Australia. There is so much meat in what he says, particularly in his arguments with both Marge and Meg, and a lot of it felt kind of like it drifted away.
Watching this production, I was struck by how little actually happens in Hotel Sorrento, in terms of concrete events which move the plot forward. There’s only one, really, and to be honest, it’s one of the weaker points of the script, which doesn’t really add that much to the story going forward. It is very much a character-driven rather than a plot-driven piece. Added to this, it is issue-driven – Rayson’s commentary on what it means to be a woman and an artist in a blokey Australian culture is pointed, but never preachy. There is so much going on in what seems to be quite a small domestic drama. Which is the point, really – why shouldn’t melancholic Australian domesticity be the site of literature?
This production of Hotel Sorrento is solid. It’s nearly two and a half long, but it doesn’t feel it – it’s interesting from start to finish. But what it misses, I think, is some of the wonderful complexity buried in Rayson’s writing, which I’d love to see given more weight.