Theatre review: Vanitas
A family portrait hangs on the wall of Vestige Manor. Reginald Vestige is seen beaming from behind his dancing moustache; his wife, Valerie, is straining to show her well-toned calves. And while son Alistair sulks with aura and attitude, and daughter Elizabeth oozes with scholarly aptitude, Grandma Edith peers coquettishly from her sitting pose.
Attic Erratic’s Vanitas is a modern-day theatrical version of the 17th century Dutch genre. Set in country Australia, this scorchingly funny play is not only a satire on society’s excessive preoccupation with looks, abilities and achievements but a salutary warning that the relentless pursuit of vanity and impression is the surefire way to self-destruction.
The production opens with a preface which, albeit incurring audience laughter, depicts vanity as something hideous, omnipresent and unstoppable — a dark obsessive force feeding off societal perception and social values.
Like the manor that has lost its grandeur — the hotel has not seen a guest in three decades — members of the Vestige household are each wallowing in their twilight years. Resisting it, however, Reginald trains his moustache and grooms his guns to hide his want of marksmanship while his sexually-frustrated wife invests as much in her spirituality as in her legs for all to see. As school drop-out Alistair indulges in fashion brands and poetic depths, unemployed Elizabeth busies herself with Sudoku and re-writing books. Then, there is Grandma Edith who demands as much attention as the advertising model she was in her yesteryears. And, weaving amongst them, in faithful service, is their loyal and compliant butler Help.
So, when a Guest arrives to stay, the manor erupts into a preening frenzy. But as she threatens to leave, weary of their narcissistic self-exultation at her hapless expense and disgusted by their callous disregard of her basic welfare, the Vestiges try to do everything in the opposite.
As Attic Erratic takes a mischievious and light-hearted approach to a serious matter, Danny Delahunty employs a multitude of topspins that culminate in an enormously entertaining tragicomedy, incisive in its commentary that vanity is not what you wear or do, but who you really are.
Whether it is Reginald’s wonderfully held facial expression, Valerie’s hilarious moves, Alistair’s convincing character, Elizabeth’s stylised poise or Edith’s studied and well-maintained voice, the cast certainly has their audience transfixed and doubling over in helpless stitches. Not forgetting, of course, the Guest’s highly deceptive actorly ease and Help’s marvellously seamless transitions — between narrator, butler, table and cat.
In the end, as we come to see, the family’s only Vestige of their life-long and earthly pursuits may well be the still-life portrait, Vanitas — if that.