Staging a one-person theatre production presents many challenges; it demands an engaging script and a versatile actor who can capture the attention of the audience for the entire duration of the show. This year’s The Testament of Mary, by Sydney Theatre Company ran into such a conflict (where despite a very good performance, its script could have benefited with more variation) – and the Old 505 Theatre’s The Sylph echoes a similar quandary with its one-woman show centred around Marie Taglioni, a pioneer of the ballet scene.
The Old 505 Theatre is notably an independent theatre company that gives opportunities for new playwrights and theatre-makers to tell stories that are experimental and fresh. With an all-female core production team including writer (Jodi Rose) and director/designer (Colleen Cook), it is a shame that the shortcomings of this play fail to magnify the rudimentary true story of Taglioni to its potential heights.
Marie Taglioni (Gertraud Ingeborg) is now a retired ballerina. She reflects on her love for the ballet, and how her technique strengthened her into one of the most pioneering ballerinas of all time – being one of the first to dance ‘en pointe’. We track her flashbacks with multiple lovers, her life as a mother, in addition to her experience of ageing.
The attempt to balance both personal and professional choices within a 70-minute play imposes a dilemma upon the script to unpack it all without sacrificing one or the other. Unsurprisingly, it suffers by not providing enough insight into the revolutionary influence of Taglioni onto the ballet scene, which is the pitfall considering it stands as the central concept of the play itself. Taglioni’s leadership in dance is only ever touched upon briefly; her ability to bring women to the forefront of the stage over men presents a more intriguing tale than the persistent anecdotes of her father, or even stories about her marriage and subsequent affairs.
The refusal of Rose’s script to develop a sense of understanding of Taglioni’s professional character means the dialogue fluctuates between inner monologues which border on the mistake of ‘telling rather than showing’ (spelling feelings like “Who am I?” and “I’m depressed”), or her talking to outside characters who are not physically present on stage. The way the personal informs the professional is important, but the renunciation of details of Taglioni’s professional career makes Rose’s script feel unsupported and difficult to be captivated by, even with its comparatively short duration length.
Ingeborg’s endurance as Taglioni is admirable; however, she is let down heavily by the script and the direction her character takes. Her Taglioni is a mystic airy-fairy figure, reiterating the voiceovers of her childhood desires to become a fairy – a “sylph”. This means that her character becomes increasingly hard to decipher. It is enigmatic to a point, but piecemeal it becomes frustrating when character development demands a new persona. When Taglioni transforms into a more active voice – it is only Ingeborg’s voice that becomes louder in volume – the failure to grasp the sense of her rebellion against her father or the true guilt over a friend’s death is not given its full weight in either the character choice or dialogue.
With its compact theatre and minimal production design elements, the Old 505 is the perfect space for theatremakers to take risks. But in this instance, The Sylph, although endearing, misses its chance to illuminate the darker passages of Taglioni’s life – never opening the stage fully enough for the ballet legend to shine.