Review: Melancholia

So, this is the way the world ends, not with a bang… or does it?

By Leeor Adar

Lars Von Trier’s cinematic masterpiece, Melancholia, is conceptually breathtaking and frightening all at once. What begins as wedding party blues turns into the most intimate and bizarrely universal existential crisis. Oh yes, it’s Chekhovian, but as it releases itself, Melancholia leaps away from its inertia and challenges its spectator and characters into asking the big, dark and pulverising questions about life as we know it.

It’s totally arresting cinematically, and a monumental challenge for anyone attempting to adapt it for stage. But this is what Malthouse Theatre maverick Matthew Lutton is drawn to, and what he has taken on with astonishing success. Declan Greene’s writing is an excellent match here for Lutton, and the language takes flight with such rich, fullness that I can smell the manure, woods, and scent that the bride Justine (Eryn Jean Norvill) smells in her heightened state.

The opening of Melancholia immediately reflects the Romantic elements of Von Trier’s world with the floor chandelier, manor-grand carpeting and stunning costuming of glittering light and pearl shades. The ceiling, with its large circular opening, is like a planetarium that dispenses pink confetti to dust the scene with its ominous beauty. Set and costume designer Marg Horwell delivers with immaculate detail, and her work gives an ethereal glow to the whole piece. Paul Jackson’s lighting design triggers the most sensual and terrifying feelings within the audience, as it acutely reflects the hours of time ticking towards doom. These elements are aided by J. David Franzke’s sound design that shakes us to our core from the middle to the crashing end. It takes a powerhouse of a team to bring together this overwhelmingly good production, and the designers delivered threefold.

Act One begins with a wedding party that is so delayed, it turns the bride’s neurotic perfectionist of a sister, Claire (Leeanna Walsman), into a mad manikin. It is a riotously comedic start, and the actors have the opportunity to stretch their talents, namely the mother played by the stellar Maude Davey. The audience, like the characters (sans Justine), are lulled into the lavish evening before the beauty of it all begins to decay in Act Two. The mother’s humour turns into a drunken rampage, Justine steps out of her pearlescent, yet muddied bridal gown as if to remove her mask, and Claire’s husband (Steve Mouzakis) hits peak menace.

Featuring Leanna Walsman & Eryn Jean Norville. Photograph by Pia Johnson
Featuring Leanna Walsman & Eryn Jean Norville. Photograph by Pia Johnson

Melancholia, without lending itself to the cause, beautifully depicts the shadow of depression and mental illness upon a family. Norvill’s Justine is perfection, reflecting fragility and exerting her numbing power with such grace that I am transfixed by her performance. Walsman, whose stern yet loving resolve is no match for the finality of what is to come, supports Norvill wonderfully. Nature itself caves in upon the sisters as Melancholia, the planet, brilliantly shows itself in the sky with its threatening size and magnetic pull. The pull of the planet seems to elevate Justine out of her hiding place, and I get the impression that it has a similar effect on all of the characters. Everyone reveals their real faces, including Claire’s husband whose cowardice and cruelty emerges breathtakingly, literally.

It’s a hard play to stomach, as you leave the theatre feeling as though you’ve exerted all your power to the planet, Melancholia. The actors, especially Norvill and Walsman, give so much of themselves to the performance that you can just feel the harrowing nature of its undertaking. I found myself unable to tear away my gaze, because the production is simply so beautiful in all of its elements and I found the exertion a worthy exercise. I was particularly triggered by some of the feelings uttered by the characters, as its existential questions sink within the spectator so spectacularly.

You may have been living under a crushing behemoth planet if you had not heard of Von Trier’s work, but I wager you to give Greene’s theatrical adaptation a whirl at the Malthouse Theatre this season. Ground breaking and bold has been Lutton’s mark thus far on the Malthouse, but he absolutely hits his highest notes in his direction of Melancholia.

Melancholia will be performed at the Merlyn Theatre, Malthouse until 12 August. Tickets can be purchased online and by calling the box office on 03 9685 5111.

Photographs: Pia Johnson