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The Clean House

Source: Queensland Theatre Company"...the play is about cleaning as transcendence, spiritual cleaning..."

So says Sarah Ruhl, American author of the latest production from the Queensland Theatre Company. The Clean House looks at a group of people who are brought together because of one woman's need for a clean and ordered life, and before too long discover that they all need to go through a cleansing process to achieve true happiness.

In many ways, it is hard to define what particular style or genre this play belongs to. It is first and foremost a comedy, but it is a comedy that carries a very strong sense of tragedy behind every joke and every line. Matilde (Brooke Satchwell), the Brazilian maid whose mother died after hearing the world's funniest joke from her husband, who then shot himself for killing his wife, arrives in America attempting to craft the perfect joke, much like her father did. It is in this character that we see this dualism of comedy and tragedy at work. Here we have a character who wants to laugh, and yet cannot seem to find the one elusive joke she searches for. It can be argued she is searching for this perfect joke as a way of dealing with the death of her parents, possibly as a way of living up to their ambitions in life. It is only when she creates this joke that she is seemingly able to move on from her past, and embrace her future - a future in which she does not need to be medicated, and can tell jokes with the best of them in New York.

She is assisted in this process through the character of Ana (Vivienne Garrett), who enters the play as a "home wrecker" that brings about the (temporary) end of the marriage between Charles (Hugh Parker) and Lane (Sarah McNeill), a married couple who work hard as doctors, but never seem to spend any time together. Ana's role in the play is significant, as it is her presence that brings about the biggest changes in the characters around her. She brings out the passionate, loving side of Charles, one that even his own wife admits she has never seen; she brings out the laughter and happy side in Matilde. Her compassionate, full-of-life, energetic side is the mask Ana wears to cover her inner torment, the torment of someone who has lacked love in her life for a long time, and just as she finds it, she discovers she is going to die. That she is able to bring out the best in those around her is her legacy to the people she leaves behind.

Ana acts as the contrast to Lane, the stuffy straight-laced, no-nonsense wife to Charles. It is easy to see why Charles felt drawn to Ana, as she offers him everything that Lane cannot - and what little Lane can offer by contrast, Charles does not seem to want or need. The way in which this triangle-like relationship is created between these characters is quite interesting, due to the fact that in the end, it is Ana's presence that brings out the best in Lane, even though she initially rejects her for breaking up a supposedly happy marriage - even though audience and characters alike know it was no such thing. Lane's ultimate forgiveness of what Ana has done, as she realises what it all represents and has even done for her, is one of the most touching moments in the production.

It is interesting that Director Kate Cherry made the conscious decision to also use actors Hugh Parker and Vivienne Garret to represent the roles of Matilde's parents, who appear in a few minor flashbacks during the show. This was an effective choice to make, given that Vivienne's main role of Ana is already a maternal figure in Matilde's life. The fact that Ana speaks Portuguese as well, and is the only person to laugh at Matilde's jokes, creates a very firm bond between the two characters. Both Satchwell and Garrett make the most of this, with tiny gestures such as holding hands, and an obvious fondness and rapport between them, strengthening the bond quite nicely.

In amongst all of this is Virginia (Carol Burns), who plays the OCD-suffering sister of Lane. Virginia's need to keep everything neat, tidy, clean, and ordered, is at the heart of this story. All of the characters need to metaphorically "clean out" the elements in their lives that are holding them back from being happy in the future. Virginia needs to be less obsessed with cleanliness (which she ultimately does in one of the funnier sequences in the show), Lane needs to be brought back to her husband and learn there is more to life than work and order, Charles needs to know what it feels like to love and be free, and Matilde needs to reconcile her feelings for her parents. While the play starts off on a surface level about characters needing things to be cleaned up in a physical sense (Matilde is hired by Lane as her cleaning maid), it is this inner sense of spiritual cleaning that the characters require more urgently. And the presence of Ana affects this change.

Source: Stage WhispersKate Cherry has clearly cast the production well, with Brooke Satchwell being the standout performer in the ensemble. Despite not being the lead character in the show, Satchwell manages to steal every single scene she is in, with a compelling performance that blends great comic timing with a very lonely isolated inner motivation to drive the character. She is ably supported by the rest of the cast, who all turn in magnificent performances. It can sometimes be very off-putting to watch a play set in America, performed by Australian actors, all of whom have to maintain a constant accent. Thankfully, it worked here, and not once did you feel you were watching something that was being deliberately staged. With QTC veterans such as Carol Burns performing in the cast, it is easy to see why the show works so well.

Andrew Bellchambers, the Set Designer for this production, has utilised the box theatre of the Cremorne in a very interesting way. QTC certainly have a reputation for interesting uses of stage space in their shows, and in this production he has created a multi-purpose set which is dominated by the living room of Lane's uber-white, spotlessly tidy, house. Kate Cherry herself said of this set, "Andrew ... and I wanted the white world to initially look like an exquisite ice cube that gradually melts as it is thrown into chaos. As real life, full of mess, tears, laughter, books and even death swirls into Lane's house, the house metaphorically melts and so does the ice around Lane's heart". This is no more evident than in the final scenes of the play, where Lane's world collapses around her, and is represented by various props such as half-eaten apples, leaves, and snow, all of which are deposited on the stage through the clever use of the space when representing other scenes, such as Matilde and Ana eating hand-picked apples, or Charle's pursuit for the tree that can save Ana's life. In fact, the use of the upper-level of the space as Ana's beachfront apartment provides a nice contrast in styles. Lane's house is all about a neat & tidy 21st Century appearance, while Ana's more rustic and haphazard balcony conjures up a sense of freedom and old, almost 1920s era, stylings. It is a very effective juxtaposition, and it works well here.

Part of why this play is hard to pigeon hole as adhering to one theatrical style is that while at times it is funny, and at times it is serious, it also makes a very conscious decision to break the fourth wall and relish it's directorial decisions. It is Brechtian without the need to be didactic. This decision works in not only enhancing the humour, but also in creating an interesting style all its own. This is most obvious when Matilde comments on the presence on-stage of Hugh Parker and Vivienne Garrett performing the imagined visions of Lane's inner thoughts. This elicited a response of laughter from the audience, due to its unconventional commentary on what is fast becoming a conventional use of limited stage space in modern productions. This was even more apparent when one considers how sequences such as Charles' search for the elusive tree is staged, right in the middle of Lane's house set. This blurring of the lines was a great choice by Kate Cherry, to be sure - it was all certainly effective.

The Clean House furthers QTC's reputation for offering a high degree of variety in its annual season. The show is playing at the Cremorne Theatre until July 31st, and I highly recommend that you get along and see it. For more details, visit the QTC website.

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