BY MINGYUE ZHOU
How close can you ever get to lunacy? And how much would you really feel about it? What is the borderline between madness and sanity, and what is the ultimate price to pay to maintain a “normal” face to the world? These are the questions you might ask yourself after seeing Sydney Theatre Company’s brand new production Face to Face directed by the young and charismatic Simon Stone, who also gave a very candid but entertaining opening speech on the evening of August 7th. The audience might have felt flattered (including me) at the announcement that what they were going to see was actually the very first of the first world premiere of the show, adapted from a 1976 film by Ingmar Bergman and led by the leading lady, NZ actress Kerry Fox who plays Jenny, a psychiatrist struggling to maintain the appearance of normality.
Jenny seems fine – family, career, everything – but only on the surface. The scenes change abruptly: almost like snapping a finger one scene retreats and another breaks in. We see Jenny whirlwind through a psychiatrist’s ward, household nagging, a forensic party, and unethical flirting, but she always does “the right thing”. It’s as if in a world of crazy, sad and illusionary people, Jenny is the only one who maintains some degree of sanity, though with some effort.
However, as the craziness climaxes, things slowly spiral out of control. Jenny collapses into herself and has a nervous break-down. Although being brought back from a failed attempt of suicide, she can’t escape her own dreams and illusionary visions. Hidden stories, internal fears, deep desires, past regrets … all her sub-conscious comes back to haunt her to be acted out live in her self-created “lunatic ward”. Another Jenny – or her true self – is thus revealed. That is when the audience is given the opportunity to walk into Jenny’s internal psychiatric world and witness the woman’s internal struggling.
It is worth noting that the play is not intended just to tell a story about a mad woman, but is trying to resonate with the audience something universal about being human. Jenny’s case is not incidental. The last scenes are a revelation which confronts the audience and even makes them a little uncomfortable, as if a voice is murmuring to them: “Could that be you?” The excruciating Jenny becomes a mirror that reflects the deepest fears of common people. At one point, it suddenly dawns on Jenny that this Jenny became “normal” only because she is conscious that in this way everything could be fine, and she insists she is fine. I think at this moment the audience might be asking themselves the question, “if I have acted normal in order to look normal to this world, where has my true self gone?” Everybody has some of Jenny inside him or herself. Yet, as everybody is aware, on the surface it all looks good for the most part.
Lastly, the character Thomas seems misplaced at first impression. Thomas is a young, handsome bachelor who takes a good deal of interest in the lunatic woman and brings her back from a suicide attempt. Jenny eventually breaks out: “What do you want from me?” (I think the audience must be asking the same question.) However, at the end of the play, the answer remains unknown. I think Thomas represents something that keeps Jenny in this world, something she can hold onto in personal and mental crisis. This role seems to carry more symbolic meaning than being a real person. And such experience is well known to each of us: if there is a Jenny, there must be a Thomas somewhere waiting to rescue her out of her misery.
The play explores the borderline between sanity and lunacy. This may as well be an affirmation that everybody is a lunatic, in some way. And those who appear sane may not be what they seem. At deeper level, or at psychiatric level, one must confront the true self face to face. And there is no other way.
Face to Face is showing at The Sydney Theatre Company until September 8.
Featured image: Kerry Fox plays leading role Jenny in Face to Face, STC’s new production. Photo courtesy STC website.