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Above left: Marta Dusseldorp and Anita Hegh. Above right: Aimee Horne & Marta Dusseldorp. Images: © Brett Boardman.

POSTED: 21 JULY 2010

Like a Fishbone, by Anthony Weigh

Sydney Theatre Company & Griffin Theatre Company | Wharf 1, Walsh Bay, Sydney | Until 7 August

“Their monument sticks like a fishbone in the city’s throat” is a line from a Robert Lowell poem For the Union Dead, which gives Anthony Weigh the title for his latest play.

Like a Fishbone is subtitled An argument and an architectural model, and is a debate about how accurately an artist should interpret the demands of a commission and what is appropriate when it comes to dealing with the legacy of a tragic event. At the heart of the play lies a discussion about the nature of architecture, over what it can and should be, whether it should be purely functional or seek greater significance.

The architect, an articulate woman at the pinnacle of her profession, confident, professional and privileged, has been commissioned to create a memorial for a small town that has suffered a tragedy: the massacre of a group of school children in a remote rural community.

Dismissing the idea of a traditional monument, she decides a precise preservation of the site would best serve the community. The end result is a replica of the school, with a wall of glass displaying desks and chairs overturned attempting to represent the truth of the tragic events.

The play largely consists of confrontational dialogue between the architect and a blind, distressed, devout mother who lost her daughter in the killings and has travelled to try and persuade the never-named architect to build a more spiritually motivated and conventional monument.

Weigh satirises the conflict by placing the characters in extreme positions and never allowing them to communicate. The architect employs corporate-speak, whereas the mother, motivated by her nightly visitations of her dead daughter cites scripture.

Ultimately, the duel of words forces the nameless architect to revaluate both her work and her own mothering instincts. The dialogue is intense and rapid and at times feels curiously detached, perhaps due to the lack of narrative detail.

The performances are skilful, compelling and mannered as these women provide the mouthpieces for intentionally opposing views. Marta Dusseldorp as the arrogant architect is poised, dignified and dispassionate, but vulnerable beneath her layers of education and privilege.

As the mother, Anita Hegh provides a radical contrast, articulating her passionate drive to validate her sense of injustice in a manic and fanatic fashion. The balance of power shifts as the overlapping dialogue rises in intensity and ferocity and this is totally absorbing to watch.

In the underdeveloped role of the architect’s intern, Aimee Horne provides a lighter tone in her accommodating interaction with the two central characters as she attempts to map out the middle ground.

Jacob Nash's corporate set provides a claustrophobic clarity, complete with rain-drenched windows which don’t open. It is starkly intimate and realistic. The ceiling is low and an illuminated model of the small town and proposed memorial provides the focus.

Tim Maddock’s direction accentuates the tensions and symbolism in the text and masterfully manipulates the drama to the resulting and unsettling conclusion. Eventually it becomes more than an analysis of polar opposites as we begin to empathise with the empty existence of a female trapped in a world of her own creation and the destruction and deprivation of a mother who seeks commemoration. Highly recommended!