It was 7:19pm on Thursday night and I was sprinting in the rain from Victoria Park to Science Road. Having mistaken the start time for a later kick-off, I was running faster than one should ever attempt down Parramatta Road. But as I found my seat in a darkened Cellar Theatre, I felt all of my stress drift away, and my breathing slowed. I was instantly grounded by the set, welcomed by the faded shades of blue and pink painted by designer Mali Lung, and the flowers shedding their petals across the stage. An overwhelming sense of comfort, one specific to the intimacy of student theatre, enveloped the audience like a warm blanket.
At this moment, just before the beginning of the show, the Cellar Theatre looked exactly like what I imagine Susan Sontag envisaged for her play Alice In Bed. Published in 1991, this play follows the brilliant but tormented sister of authors William and Henry James through her rage, grief, and the small pleasures of being unable to leave her room. Alice, played by Zahara Jithoo, is at once sensitive and frustratingly witty, capturing the complexity of a woman with mental illness’s relationship with creativity, femininity, passion and hysteria.
This conflict between the internal and external world is the viewer’s primary entry point into the vision shared by director Mary Franklin and assistant director Amelia Vogelsang. The distance between Alice and her father, played by Patrick Tynan, is in perfect tension with the warm, inviting golden glow he sits beneath. The comfort Gemma Hudson’s Emily Dickinson, Zara Podmore’s Margaret Fuller and Claire Hwang’s Kundry attempt to provide cannot penetrate Alice’s malaise, no matter how long they spend at the dark mahogany dining table. Even when Alice’s brother Harry, portrayed by Adele Beaumont, sits shoulder-to-shoulder with her on her luxurious yet cosy bed, he never truly feels her.
These relationships move throughout the production alongside Amber Broadbent and Jadzia Stronell’s MI and MII, leading the audience “down the rabbit hole” of Sontag’s magical realism. I felt at once seen and seen through by Jithoo’s glossy gazes, enticed by Hudson’s literary allusions, and moved by Lily McGuinness’ reappearance as mother. But this dreamscape lost momentum at points, relying on changes in pitch, lighting or the recurrent musical motif separating the scenes (designed by Sound Director Nicola Weiss) to create points of emphasis, rather than focusing on the variations embedded into the soliloquies and conversations themselves. The meandering precarity of a life lived in bed, travelling only through space and time, had a tendency to get lost.
The real triumph of SUDS’ Alice in Bed, then, is in the chemistry between the ensemble cast, ranging from McGuinness’ compassionate stoicism as Nurse, to Danny Cabubas’ whimsical musicality as Myrtha. All of these artistic choices reinforce the disconnect between Alice’s true feelings, the parts of herself she thinks she knows, and their perception by those around her when she chooses to share them. These emotions ultimately revolve around Alice herself, accentuated by the kaleidoscopic hues created by Lighting Designer Luna Ng, and the colours, textiles, and fabrics employed by Costume Designers Victoria Gillespie and Hunter Shanahan.
Lying somewhere between reality and fiction, Alice in Bed is a glimpse through the looking glass at oneself and the internal difficulties we face on a daily basis. Infusing Alice with the courage and curiosity of Lewis Carroll’s beloved heroine, this (mostly) female cast and crew understands what it is to want to be one’s own woman, to not truly know what this means, and persevere in spite of it.
Get yourselves out of bed and to Cellar Theatre before 24 September.