Review: The Splinter

by Jane

This mother and father have much to be thankful for. Their daughter Laura, just four years old, has come back after who knows what she went through in the last nine months. She’s not talking. She’s taller. Harder somehow. But she’s back. That’s all that matters, isn’t it?

Until the questions start to pop up. Why isn’t she talking? Why does it appear she doesn’t remember who her parents are? Why does it all seem just a little off? For the mother this is easy: her daughter has returned, they can move on with their lives. For the father, it is not. Questions, doubts, apprehensions become bigger and bigger, until they are all he can see.

You can never return home, the saying goes. So when a lost child returns home, what home could they possibly be returning to?

The Splinter is a deliciously spooky play from writer Hillary Bell and director Sarah Goodes. In the intimate space of the Wharf 1 Theatre they have created a haunting work in which the world within the play, the world of the theatre, and time all seem to be stretched and played with. Although just 75 minutes, the world of the play seems to slow time: the unease of the play enveloping.

Bell’s script is, at its heart, a simple story as a couple celebrates and struggles with the return of their daughter. The design (Renee Mulder), too, is simple: all muted browns, few pieces of furniture, carpeted floors walked on with socked feet, a large drop curtain creating the window to the outside and the representation of the wall. Lighting (Damien Cooper) and sound (composition by Emily Maguire, design by Steve Francis) keep a throbbing, spooky pace to the work. Julia Ohannessian and Kate Worsley manipulate the puppet daughter, Laura: small, sharp lines, sad eyes, fine hair. Silent.

To say these elements are simple, however, is misleading. It is within this assumed simplicity where the work builds its power and holds its audience on a precarious edge.

The exposure of the puppeteer is standard in contemporary theatre, and we see plays without a completely representational set more often than not. As audiences, we know when something is “real” in the terms of the play: what we need to turn a blind eye to, or where we need to fill in the blanks.

In The Splinter, Goodes subverts these appreciations we have for the craft of theatre: things that may typically be used as utilitarian stagecraft instead become the layer on which the tension is built. Goodes exposure of the stage craft  – a large fan bellowing at the curtains, leaves being thrown across the stage –  blurs the lines between the realities of the play and the realities of the theatre.

Ohannessian and Worsley manipulate the puppet (puppetry and movement direction by Alice Osborne) with a steely resolve, the harsh wooden lines of the puppet reflected in their harsh presence. The tables then turn and the presence of Laura is no-longer carried within the puppet, but flickers between and is shared by Ohannessian and Worsley themselves. The lines between puppeteer and character are blurred, Laura moving between the women and puppet to surprisingly unsettling effect.

Bell never determines which parent we should believe – the trusting mother or the doubting father – and neither position is presented or played with judgment. Erik Thomson and Helen Thomson’s soft hesitation in their relationship with their newly returned daughter is heartbreaking, their navigation of their relationship fraught, and their performances balanced so as an audience we are on the side of both parents, rather than trusting one or the other.

Bell and Goodes don’t offer up any answers to the mystery in The Splinter. Its final moments are left hanging, and the audience is offered no insights into the lines between the real and the believed. And so as I left the theatre, and for many days more, the story – and my beating heart – left with me.

Sydney Theatre Company presents The Splinter by Hilary Bell. Director Sarah Goodes, puppetry and movement director Alice Osbourne, design Renee Mulder, lighting designer Damien Cooper, composer Emily Maguire, sound design Steve Francis. With Julia Ohannessian, Erik Thompson, Helen Thompson and Kate Worsley. At Wharf Theatre 1 until Sept 15. More information and tickets.

Photo of Kate Worsley in The Splinter, by Brett Boardman.