Opening Night at Belvoir in Sydney is the story of an actor, Myrtle (Leeanna Walsman), who finds herself at a point in her life where her age begins to make her feel invisible. She starts to question her relevance and her ability as a performer as she undergoes rehearsals for a new play. Everyone around her repeatedly tells her that this role, that of a hopeless, sad, desperate woman clinging to her youth, is perfect for her, but she isn’t convinced. When she looks in the mirror is this what she sees or is it the reflection of her younger self.
The sudden death of a young fan outside the theatre plunges Myrtle into a downward spiral of hallucinations and illusions. This young woman Nancy (Caitlin Burley) represents everything she was and hopes to be. Young, vulnerable, open, honest and incredibly raw. She begins to see her in the mirror and then eventually on stage, and as guilt morphs into hysteria the figure of Nancy becomes a representation of the actress herself.
Based on the screenplay by John Cassavetes and adapted and directed by Carissa Licciardello, Opening Night is a turbulent insight into one woman’s descent into disillusion and doubt. For this reason, I was surprised at how relatable I found the character of Myrtle. The sense of loss, of ageing almost against your will, of losing relevance in the eyes of society, of remembering who you used to be when you were younger and craving that sense of fearlessness. I get it. I feel it. Cleverly, although her age is alluded to frequently throughout the play, and at one point the playwright Sarah (Toni Scanlan) point-blank asks her how old she is – we never find out. This allows every woman in the room to become the character, to envisage themselves in her shoes.
Walsman is exceptional as Myrtle. Her despair, her anguish and her eventual rising from the ashes is truly mesmerising. As Myrtle, she fights this narrow generalisation of female insignificance that is placed upon her by her male director Manny (Luke Mullins) and her male co-star Marty (Anthony Harkin) and constantly pushes back on them both. Throughout the play we see her struggle to assimilate this idea of who she was with who she is becoming but when she finds a balance, it is a sight to behold.
By far the standout scene is the end, where we see Myrtle truly own the stage. She is fearless, she is confident and she effectively re-writes the narrative. There is truly nothing more thrilling than seeing a woman take her power back. Interestingly throughout the play, it is the women – Sarah and Kelly (Jing-Xuan Chan) the costume designer, who display empathy towards Myrtle and the obvious internal struggle she is going through. To the men, she is merely a means to an end, with both needing something from her to further their own success. It is for this reason that when Myrtle flips the script at the end it is intensely satisfying.
The lighting and set design by David Fleischer are incredibly clever and effective. While the set itself does not change between rehearsals and Myrtle’s home, the lighting shifts from harsh fluorescent to soft down-lights. Lighting is also utilised to symbolise the actors descent into madness as she becomes increasingly unable to decipher what is real from what is fantasy.
Opening Night presents an insightful look at a woman’s relevance as she ages and the impact this can have. While some would argue that the feeling of invisibility that occurs as you age is a genderless concept, it cannot be denied that in our society it is applied far more to women than to men, and the impacts can be devastating. Who hasn’t looked at a photo of their younger self and wondered – what happened to that person? But, as Myrtle demonstrates, life doesn’t have to be chilling, in fact, with the right attitude, it can still be thrilling.
FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Opening Night runs until the 22 March 2022 at Belvoir in Sydney. For more information and to buy tickets head to the website.
Reviewer attended the performance on the 3 March.
Photography by Brett Boardman.