By Nicki Bloom. State Theatre Company South Australia. Dunstan Playhouse. November 17-December 3, 2017

A search for the meaning of vale brings up two main definitions, a valley and a farewell. In Nicki Bloom’s play Vale, the term is also used as both a surname and the name for a group of boutique hotels.

The curtains open and we are presented with a shiny, gold and white penthouse suite which is the ‘home’ of Joseph (Mark Saturno) and Tina Vale (Elena Carapetis) awaiting the arrival of their daughter Isla (Tilda Cobham-Harvey) and her boyfriend, Angus (James Smith). It is New Year’s Eve and the traditional family party has yet to start.

Joe is a bullying, arrogant and to use Brookman’s description, ‘swine’ of a character. Yet we know this man, if the size and look of the penthouse tells us anything; that on the surface at least, he is successful in business.  Joe makes a point of reiterating that he has money and everything in his life is his, including his wife and daughter who are not individuals in their own right but assets that belong to him to do with as he wants. However, the long gold curtains and gold-covered grand piano bring the old saying, “All that glitters is not gold” to mind.

The ‘intruder’, Diana, Angus’s mother played by Emma Jackson, points out none too tactfully that the room is “out-dated”. And this description can easily be applied to Joe. His comments and insults created audible intakes of breath in the audience and the sense of a hiss of disapproval. The behaviours of Joe Vale are less and less tolerated in our world, but they are still here.  

Playwright Bloom and actor Mark Saturno have created a powerful character in Joseph Vale, repellent, scary and fascinating in the way a snake is. Most of us give snakes a wide berth but we are also drawn to watch them. In the first half I was excited at where this exploration of this “out-dated” but still very much present in our world character was going.

The strong ensemble of actors produce excellent performances. Isla, the recently qualified lawyer and heiress to the Vale fortunes, takes her inheritance for granted and also wants little to do with it. Angus, the ‘brilliant’ boyfriend, is ambitious and there are subtle changes in his language and actions throughout the performance that ring warning bells. Tina is wound up so tight that she is like a clockwork automaton in her movement. She follows instructions but is removed from the conversations and often from the stage and action; this is her usual behaviour on New Year’s Eve, according to her daughter. And like an automaton, when she does participate, it is in the well-rehearsed and repetitive phrases of a puppet.

The production values of Vale are extremely high, with a stunning set design by Mark Thompson. Geoff Cobham’s lighting illuminates the situations beautifully, and the soundscape by Hilary Kleinig adds to the atmosphere. The production is well directed by Geordie Brookman.

And then at the end of the first act, there was the first of the coincidences or clichés. Diana arrives and she and Joe know each other. Putting this information together with the other clues in the first act concerning Tina’s strange behaviour around her husband and her daughter, I predicted the rest of the storyline accurately. I won’t give the ending away but from this point on, the play becomes increasingly unbelievable because it is so clichéd. The second act piles up the disclosures of family secrets until it becomes a messy almost farcical collision. The second half of the play was doubly disappointing to me, as the first act had had immense promise.

Theatre has traditionally held a mirror up to society and this is what we witnessed in the first act. I was so hopeful that this play would be an exploration of the conflicts between the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ in the present world. Joe Vale has many of the attributes of a ‘Lear’- like character and the play at the beginning offered the opportunity of a new model of kingship that could be established by Isla and Angus.

One of the letdowns for me was that the action all takes place on one night. It would have opened up many more opportunities for developing a true modern tragedy if in the second act Bloom had taken the risk of exploring a New Year’s Eve party ten years on. Exploring questions such as: Is there room for Joe to find redemption? Is there a different way to define what is enough? Is there a middle path between generations? Instead Vale became more of a soap opera and a valley of tears rather than a vale or farewell to this particular type of man.

Sally Putnam

Photographer: Chris Herzfeld

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