Melbourne Festival: Room of Regret

No one makes theatre like The Rabble do. It’s like co-creators Emma Valente and Kate Davis take the concept of theatre and re-create it into something that looks like theatre, but feels like a trip – I don’t mean holiday – that simultaneously assults and calms and awakens bits of your brain that you didn’t know existed.

Room of Regret
Room of Regret

Room of Regret is their reflection on Oscar Wilde’s only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. Compared to their recent Story of O and even last Festival’s Orlando, it’s close to being a literal re-telling. But don’t expect a lot of words from Dorian’s tumble through perfection, hedonism and despair.

Instead, expect to be immersed into, sometimes almost drowned in, a pool of pure emotion. With no restraint, it batters and confronts, but there’s love and comfort around the next corner and the only fear is that of missing out.

The audience (40; there isn’t room for 41) are taken into the theatre in groups. All have their heads covered in a lace veil and are lead through a house, with plywood walls and floor covered in gold leaves, and are left sitting in different rooms. No group can see the other, or really see their own group as all sit like statues covered in dust sheets waiting for the summer return of the household. As the lighting brings an eerie autumn twilight, the other draped statues come to life.

Description can’t justify this experience and no experience can be the same because of the different views. Sometimes the action is in touching distance, other times it’s heard, glimpsed through a doorway or projected onto a screen.

Nothing is lost by being in a different room, but nothing is gained by staying put. If a hand is offered from the cast, take it. My favourite moment was one that no one saw: there was a top hat, a dance, a whisper and a cuddle.

Technically, what’s so astonishing about such a complex piece is that it sustains its changing pace and tone throughout the space. The cast (Pier Carthew, Alex McQueen, Mary Helen Sassman, David Harrison and Emily Milledge) show no favour as they dash or slink from room to room and often choose one person to tell their story to. There’s repetition that’s never the same and reflection is left to the audience, often very literally with mirrors.

Valente’s lighting (as glorious as her direction) establishes the changing mood and Davis’s design entices with lace, beads, silky leopard print and furs that begged to be felt. But (finally) there’s the ability to touch her world. Here the synthetic falseness of the gold leaves can be picked up, the distortion of lace-covered eyes controlled and the touch of flesh is welcomed, but never forced. (I’ve never come so close to touching and comforting an actor. The only thing that stopped me was seeing my own reflection in a mirror. I now wish I had.)

I’ve described The Rabble’s work like a dream before and it’s still as close as I can get. In dreams, illogic makes perfect sense and all that really matters is how you feel, and how you still feel when you wake up relieved or devastated to be safe in your own bed. Description and interpretation only take the felt meaning away from the dreamer.

Room of Regret might be at living nightmare or leave you floating and hoping to never wake up. Whatever, it’s not work to force meaning onto because whatever you feel is what it’s meant to mean.

It left me feeling elated and awake and wanting to do it again.

And if you want Wilde’s telling of the story, read the book.

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

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