Theatre review: Belleville, Herald Theatre

By Janet McAllister

Satisfying, meaty and complex study of challenging relationship.

Matt Whelan and Sophie Henderson give committed, brilliant, absorbing performances. Photo / Andrew Malmo
Matt Whelan and Sophie Henderson give committed, brilliant, absorbing performances. Photo / Andrew Malmo

A knock at the door sounds like hammering with an anvil in this Silo Theatre production, but clever, compelling Belleville is really only playing dress-up as a thriller. Its taut, insightful portrait of a millennial marriage is the real element of interest here.

Beautiful neurotics Abby and Zack are undergoing their quarter-life crises in Paris - city of broken American dreams. Playwright Amy Herzog skilfully captures their claustrophobia, isolation and shifting power dynamics but also their attraction, recounting the relentless, infinite number of "new beginnings" in a challenging relationship. It feels real: the couple know the conversation subtext before the audience does; as they should, given they've been married five years.

Directed by Oliver Driver, both Sophie Henderson and Matt Whelan give committed, brilliant, absorbing performances, making us believe in the couple's long-term intimate familiarity. Under pressure, Zack's face tics ever so slightly.

Abby complains about the parental mantra that "it doesn't matter what you do, as long as you're happy" because she's "so tired of this pressure to be happy". But the play also disapproves of the mantra's encouragement of irresponsible infantilism - Abby and Zack break and take things, and expect to be immediately forgiven.

Young Senegalese-French property managers act in loco parentis for the Americans (Tawanda Manyimo as the husband is nicely at ease). We don't find out much about this counterpoint couple; an irony of the play is that it feeds Western self-absorption while it criticises it.

John Verryt's set - graffitied to show that this is the Paris of MC Solaar not the Sun King - underlines our voyeurism, letting us see through walls to an actual working shower.

Given the verisimilitude, it's unsurprising that a few small hiccups very briefly break the suspension of disbelief, such as Abby's tan in winter. More significantly, the ending's melodrama feels, to me at least, like it's sacrificing character for plot (thinking up alternatives is entertaining). Still, it doesn't detract, it just feels unnecessary. Before then, Belleville had already proved itself to be satisfying, meaty and complex.

What: Belleville
When: Until 20 September
Where: Herald Theatre, Aotea Centre

- NZ Herald

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