Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples
Collected Stories by Donald Margulies
Pitt St Theatre
Until July 10
Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples
Playwright Donald Margulies 1997 work Collected Stories is a brilliant piece of writing for a couple of actors with its musing on the mentor- pupil relationship. Here we find Ruth Steiner (Elizabeth Hawthorne), a gifted New York writer (she must be important as she gets calls from Norman Mailer and Susan Sontag) and university lecturer with a keen sense of humour who lives by herself.
She has private sessions with aspiring writers and one day encounters the lively , ambitious student writer, Lisa Morrison (Michelle Blundell) who so captivates Ruth that she takes her on as student and hires her as her personal assistant.
Over the course of several years, we listen to their conversations, learning much about the processes and perils of writing with Rath explaining and expounding on her own writing career including her time as a poet in Greenwich Village and her affair with one of the great Beat poets. She talks about various approaches to writing including the concept of taking inspiration and ideas from any and all sources.
Over time the pair become close in a symbiotic relationship with Lisa growing in stature as a writer with the publication of her collection of short stories and eventually a novel. Ruth is both impressed and happy with the book of poetry but when she reads the novel, she is appalled by the fact that Lisa has used Ruth’s Jewish background, her experiences of becoming a writer and her affair with the poet as the basis of the tale.
The relationship becomes tense with Ruth seeing Lisa as a parasitic and Lisa unable to comprehend why her mentor’s advice which she has taken is seen as some form of identity theft.
The play traverses notions of who should and can write about other people’s lives – is there a need for consent, how far does appropriation go, whose voice can be used.
But at it heart the work is about relationships and both characters have to deal with issues around trust, loyalty, and mutual needs in a complex web of circumstances.
It’s a superbly written play and director Paul Gittins has managed to bring together designers and actors who make the work immensely enjoyable and satisfying.
Elizabeth Hawthorne is it her best moving from the sharp academic to offended and hectoring ex teacher while Michelle Blundell’s developing character gains in confidence and understanding. She is particularly spirited in her book-reading scene standing in front of the audience.
The two women create a nuanced, layered relationship and our sympathies are divided with the two characters laying out their lives and motivation.
Designers John Parker, Elizabeth Whiting and Michael Goodwin have done a remarkable job with the set, costumes and lighting to capture the period and the location. The back projection of black and white film of late century New York are particularly effective.