A review of ‘St Nicholas’
by Rosalind Moran
Vampires and theatre critics. What could they possibly have in common?
St Nicholas is both a gothic play and an unnerving moral fable. Written by Irish playwright Conor McPherson in 1997, the play follows an unpopular and self-loathing theatre critic as he pursues a beautiful actress, hits rock bottom, and then meets a group of vampires. Curiously, these vampires actually provide him with a new lease of life – albeit a morally ambiguous one. The critic lures groups of young people to the vampires’ house and is granted vivacity and charisma in return. He even gains inspiration and finds himself able to write his own stories, as opposed to his former state, where he reviewed the works of others but produced little himself (touché). Nevertheless, by the play’s end, the critic feels he has blood on his hands and is compelled to confront his own actions.
The most practical approach to viewing St Nicholas may be to allow such detail-oriented questions to simply float away. Indeed, the play can be enjoyed for its gothic, suspenseful atmosphere and dark humour alone. The parallel drawn between vampires and critics, for example, is an entertaining and biting (not sorry) critique that lumps these two groups together as ‘bloodsuckers’. There are also moments in the play that truly capture the imagination, such as the folktale shared by one of the vampires regarding a woodsman, a well, and a watch that can tell more than just time.
The Street Theatre did commendably in adapting this play for the stage, especially considering social distancing measures meant the play had to be livestreamed to viewers sitting at home. This introduced a whole new element of production to the show, with camerawork suddenly becoming an integral part of connecting the play with audiences. The camera moved a lot in following the critic, who looked directly at the camera as he delivered his play-length monologue, and it also became shaky at certain tense moments as if to convey emotional turmoil and fear – a technique often used in filmmaking. This complex camerawork lent a distinctive quality to the play; however, it also raised questions. For instance, to what degree does filming a play reveal the cameraperson’s perspective as opposed to that of the protagonist, or the audience? Does this add to or detract from the experience of viewing the play?
The answer to this question largely comes down to personal preference. Nevertheless, it highlights the issue of what an audience expects from a play, and whether a play is or should be distinct from film when being performed via a livestream. St Nicholas had a particular filmographic quality, even featuring occasional unsettling images spliced into the footage using video technology – a production option only made available through livestreaming. In this respect, the play is a testament to the inventiveness of director Shelly Higgs and her team. At the same time, it is challenging to know how to judge this production, for it has the bones and the pacing of a play but the presentation of a film. Seeing productions break formal barriers is exciting, and I enjoyed the play, but the relative objectivity of audiences looking freely at a stage – a typical component of theatre – was lost.
From a narrative perspective, the play arguably could have been improved (although of course, this is an issue with the play itself as opposed to The Street Theatre’s production of it. It is also a matter of personal preference). I would argue the fact the play was a monologue was a shame: while the monologue offers the single cast member the opportunity to deliver an acting tour-de-force, it also distances the audience from the action. This play is very much about telling as opposed to showing – though there were admittedly several beautiful production touches, such as using a swinging torch to evoke the impression of driving past streetlamps. Nevertheless – perhaps because I have been socially isolating? – my preference would have been to see multiple people playing the different characters, and thus immersing the audience more fully in the story. This is especially true in the case of the female characters, who were only superficially explored at best, to the point that the lack of well-drawn female characters was a significant strike against the play’s success.
That said, these comments take issue with the work of the playwright, not of the actor or producers. The Street Theatre’s production of St Nicholas was meticulously crafted and accomplished, especially considering the necessary limitations on staging owing to social distancing measures. The production trod an unconventional path between theatre and film, and while it introduced new considerations surrounding how audiences can or should view plays, the fact it succeeded in telling a story in a distinctive style is an enormous achievement in itself. This particular critic is happy returning to her coffin in peace.
St Nicholas by Conor McPherson ran from 5 – 7 June 2020 at The Street Theatre, Canberra. Length: 88 minutes.
Image credits: Craig Alexander