Write what you know — is a maxim writers are mostly told to observe. So, what does a man know, to write in the voice of three women? What right does a man have, to claim he is privy to their ‘deepest and darkest secrets’?
Keith Gow’s latest play comprises three discrete monologues — Fire, Words, and Painting – by female characters of his creation. And, contrary to conventional belief, it turns out to be a rich and absorbing piece of theatre that tells their stories well, reinforcing the transcendence of creativity over boundaries.
Fire tells the tale of Penny, a self-proclaimed pyromaniac, who describes her passion for setting things alight with sensuous carnal hunger. She confesses to burning a bordello after dabbling in a series of small, if inconsequential, projects. And while the sound of the fire engine siren is, to her, a climatic reaction to her handiwork, she perceives its premature appearance as an annoying ‘coitus interruptus’.
Through Penny’s soliloquy, Gow invites us into the pained and conflicted world of the creative artist who struggles between the desire to inflame feelings, create a spectacle, and inflict destruction on the one hand, and their moral conscience against causing inadvertent suffering on the other.
In between railing at the audience for judging her, and ridiculing their credulity of her beguiling ways, Penny suggests how relentless justifications and excessive compassions may enervate the creative fire, too easily snuffed out before the licking flames stand any chance of taking off.
In Words, Jane encounters for the first time poems the boy next door had written before his death. She reads his recounting of their first dates, and his perception of their first kiss. A page in his diary reveals a fervently righteous heart; a crinkly piece of paper, his despair at his diagnosis. She shudders at his pithy allusion to nausea and is shattered by his later antipathy of her.
With mellifluous lyricism, Gow’s poetry takes us on a labyrithine ride through the young man’s inner space. He demonstrates the tragic consequence of hiding the truth from people you love, but perhaps, more importantly, of an artist’s locking away of his talent from the outside world.
In lamenting missed opportunities with the boy she adores, Jane finds herself grappling with the dilemma over the dead poet’s legacy.
If Fire is about an artist who has lost her virtuosity, and if Words is about an artist who hides his dreams, then Painting is a portrait of an artist whose success has supplanted reality. Sophia is a highly esteemed actress whom, despite a doting husband devoted to painting her on massive canvases, had gone on to betray him in her affairs with co-actors during the making of such productions as Twelfth Night and Macbeth.
This monologue is written in nigh Shakespearean language: lush, wild and dense, hard to follow at times, but immensely effective in intimating Sophia’s entrapment in her acting roles.
Each story is deftly directed and superbly acted: Renee Palmer radiates in her charismatic portrayal of Penny, Christine Husband makes one appropriately tearful in her emotive depiction of Jane, while Adrienne Sloan catches the vulnerability and malevolence of the bewitching Sophia.
Crisp in no more than 50 minutes, Wallis Murphy-Munn’s outstanding production also features pianist Claire Healy whose mystical music fills the loading dock of the old tallow with a lingering sense of mystery. Special mention, nonetheless, must be made of Andre White’s set design that has transformed the rustic quality of Kensington’s Revolt Art Space into a highly immersive stage venue.
In the end, Gow and the actors’ depth of talent is revealed in the final coalescing of the three disparate pieces into a satisfying whole, cleverly named Painting with Words and Fire. So, what right does a man have, to write three women’s stories? Every right – but only with their valued partnership.