Malthouse: Wild Surmise

Jane Montgomery Griffiths says her adaption of Dorothy Porter's 2004 verse novel Wild Surmise “is an enactment of the act of love that is reading”. Until now, I hadn't read Dorothy Porter. I'm nervous of verse novels; I think they're a bit pretentious. How great to be so wrong. This Malthouse production celebrates Porter and compels a reading of the novel, while relishing being told on a stage.

Wild Surmise. Photo by PiaJohnson
Wild Surmise. Photo by PiaJohnson 

Alex is an astrobiologist and minor science celebrity. She's engulfed in an affair with Phoebe, an older American scientist, and married to poetry professor Daniel, who's had enough of corporate universities, dreams of getting back at pretentious students and is diagnosed with cancer. There's no comforting romance or confessional resolution in a story that hurts with the honesty that Alex and Daniel can never share.

The first thing seen on the stage is Humphrey Bower (Daniel) reading pages of verse; all the pages of his story that are stuck on the walls/window/mirror of his world. Designer Anna Tregloan and lighting designer Paul Jackson have created an exquisite double-mirrored world with reflections that distort and confuse like a Vegas magician but so beautifully open what feels like a new dimension on the stage where Alex and

Daniel can simultaneously be in the same and different worlds.

Director Marion Potts captures why Porter's poetry is so loved, but brings a life and interpretation to the story that lets the theatre own this telling. Porter's words fly with their surprising rhythm and cosmic comparisons, ground with metaphors of terrible Elvis movies and unflusable big black turds, and comfort with the familiarity of St Kilda beach and Mario's coffee. Pott's encapsulates Alex being a Sydney girl with her fumbling with a red expresso machine and never lets the characters become as heroic or honest as their raw thoughts.

In a conventional narrative we hear conversations and imagine the unspoken; in verse we hear the unspoken and are left to imagine the awkward conversations that never share the emotional truth and poetry in their hearts and heads.

Montgomery Griffith and Bower speak verse like it's their only language and there's not a syllable uttered without understanding and intent. Their powerful and painfully truthful performances love the text but show what Alex and Daniel feel about each other beyond the words. They don't speak to each other, but are so aware of the other that they react when the other thinks or speaks about them. It's this detail that adds the heart that creates people we care about, even if their behaviour and thoughts are not what we'd chose.

When we read, we add the detail that makes a story ours.  This production adds the character detail for us, which leaves us free to really listen to Porter's words. It's not like reading, but it captures the passion of falling in love with a book and a writer because its damaged people are so clear that we feel like we're in their world with them.


Anne-Marie Peard

Anne-Marie spent many years working with amazing artists at arts festivals all over Australia. She's been a freelance arts writer for the last 10 years and teaches journalism at Monash University.

Anne-Marie Peard