Ian Sinclair’s new play Nocturna deals with the ambiguous sensual and, yes, sometimes sexual/quasi-romantic attachments between humans and pets. Much of the piece takes the form of a modern domestic or screwball comedy set in a young person’s share house. The strongest sections are, however, delivered as a series of increasingly surreal, poetic diatribes, which describe the action or fantasies seen by the characters unfolding before them, many of these being delivered by the feline protagonist, Molly (played by Ali Van Reeken).
Two slacker young men – Sean (Isaac Diamond) and Noah (Daniel Buckle) – share a house with the equally aimless young woman Suha (Alicia Osyka) and Sean’s tense if more upwardly mobile girlfriend Norabella (Morgan Owen). Sean has long been the proud owner of Molly, a now possessive and defensive cat whom the rest of the household find increasingly unsettling and disturbing.
Australian television and drama have not exactly been starved of sitcoms dealing with young householders, and the comedy here is fairly broad, dealing with the usual tensions around cleaning rosters and “Who ate my yogurt?” The tone is closer to the dog jokes in Something About Mary (1998) than that peerless classic screwball comedy about man-meets-woman-meets-leopard Bringing Up Baby (1938).
The play opens with one of series of monologues delivered by the peerless Van Reeken as the cosmically knowledgeable cat who’s impossibly fantastical nine lives span Creation, Ancient Egypt, the European witch trials (incorrectly placed in the Medieval period rather than the 17th century, but only sticklers for history like me are likely to notice!) and more. “In the beginning, everything was fur,” she enthuses, before taking us through a series of reincarnations as she seeks her cosmically ordained, one true love, for whom she will cross the species divide.
In this hallucinatory parallel universe, cats play roulette with gods and other animals, while violence, money, travel and lust mix in dark swirls of impossible poetry. It is a heady mix and each interruption of the “real” world by these rolling set pieces gives the show great verve and energy, especially as the equally broadly drawn reality of the house becomes more like a series of ever more unlikely stories, dreams and nightmares. Noah and Norabella move towards having an affair as they regress to BMX bandits smashing letterboxes, while a drug fuelled club fandango conducted by Suha and Noah is equally lurid and bizarre.
This leads to a compelling finale where Molly – having been recently dispatched by Norabella and Noah in a horribly premeditated act of fear and jealousy – reappears as a nightmare gameshow host who prepares the cosmically displaced former girlfriend of Sean for a murderous retribution to be dished out by an army of puppet like giant “cats with wasps that fly around their heads”.
Bruce McKinven represents the house simply with a sparse collection of furniture, though the clean white glow of everything seems somewhat out of keeping with the apparent squalor the characters allude to. The performing area is defined with first a black then a white triangular fabric wall, which is pulled away in the finale to leave Norabella even more alone than Molly was in the opening.
Director Mel Cantwell handles the balance between these competing realities and their performance styles well, if perhaps without a great deal of finesse. In the end, none of the humans come across as particularly compelling or sympathetic, and the characterisation of Sean’s vindictive and uptight girlfriend is more how I suspect a heterosexual man might see her than a particularly insightful satire about relationships or pet owning. Moreover linking cats to a dark and dangerous feminine sexuality is hardly new. The production never approaches the truly creepy ambiguities of Tournier’s classic horror film Cat People (1942), for example.
Nevertheless, Van Reeken’s monologues are more than enough to capture any audience, and her channelling of Eartha Kitt’s Catwoman in her portray of Molly is tremendous. Her tall, thin, fluid frame beautifully expresses catty gestures, while the choices for where she is more playing a non-speaking human and Van Reeken, for example, turns up her nose, sighs, or puts her boots on the table, are equally well judged. As an anthropomorphic depiction of an admittedly difficult animal who is treated badly, it is outstanding. Van Reeken’s meows are wonderfully chesty, feline interjections and her later depiction of the game show hostess seems partly inspired by the predatory sexual dancer automaton in Metropolis (1927). Even if the afterlife of another’s night-terrors, Van Reeken remains alarmingly stylish and sharp like a razor.
Theatre has had its share of anthropomorphic animal characters, most notably Edward Albee’s rather twee man-meets-goat romance Sylvia (2000), but recent theorising of human-animal relations (particularly by Donna Harraway) has led many artists since to emphasise how fundamentally weird, unsettling, unknowable, and not like humans truly animals are; how they challenge our idea of what, or even if, other beings think, feel or express. That is to say animals definitely “feel” things, but calling them by a human word like “love” is also clearly misleading since animals neither think nor behave according to such terms.
In many ways then, Nocturna represents about as far you can go in depicting animals as basically like humans, and by doing so, to show that our inability or unwillingness to treat them that way is a particularly ugly human failing. In the best moments of the play though, when we are deep in Molly’s world of fur, glitter and demented imaginings, Sinclair gestures towards a minotaur like fusion of human and animal such as was dreamed of by Surrealist artists like Jean Cocteau, Andre Masson and Louise Bourgeois; one which would disturb and change human and animal behaviours in ways which we have yet to confront.
Nocturna runs at the Subiaco Arts Centre, Perth until 28 August.