We begin with a happy ending beyond the central couple’s wildest dreams: after nine months missing, five-year-old Laura is found and returned to her parents.
It all goes downhill from there.
In an isolated beach house, Hilary Bell’s moody Australian gothic drama Splinter picks at all the couple’s raw and exposed nerves.
Part fairy tale, part horror, we watch the Man (Simon Gleeson) and the Woman (Lucy Bell) reach out repeatedly to their changed, possibly traumatised child. There’s no ease in their family moments; everything has changed. Laura has changed.
But is she some kind of changeling? Or even just a stranger?
The Man becomes consumed by the conspiracy, and somewhere between the distant waves and the silence in their home, he can’t think of anything but driving out this impostor.
Splinter first premiered in 2012 at the Sydney Theatre Company, where Laura was played by an eerie, charged puppet. Here, she’s an empty space that’s both possibility and impossibility.
Is the father spinning out of control, or is he actually right? Is the Woman right to be horrified by his suspicions, or is she blind to the reality of the story? It’s hard to say.
Director Lee Lewis, who works nimbly and hungrily inside the cracks of intimate relationships, clearly relishes the ambiguity in her production.
Gleeson is caught somewhere between the walls falling in on himself and a wide-eyed epiphany; Bell’s Woman is fighting constantly to mitigate her panic, measure her anger, and hold the pieces of her family together. It’s a woman’s emotional load pushed to its limits, and it’s difficult to watch.
But it’s even more difficult to study Gleeson’s man. Seven years on from its premiere, his mistrust for his daughter as she asserts her new self – destroying old toys, refusing to play old games – feels a lot like the worst of father-daughter relationships made theatrical.
He denies her personhood, longing for the daddy’s-little-angel child that she once was. Everything new about her, and thus everything separate from him, is to be judged and studied and deemed incorrect. And isn’t that just as much a plot for a horror as that of a swapped-in child from a magical, cruel realm?
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Splinter is a complete and sustained universe unto itself, and you feel it here on the haunted beach house of a set (designed by Tobiyah Stone Feller). Lit by Benjamin Brockman with doubtful shadows and flickering candles, the atmosphere is all the spookier for Mic Gruchy’s video projection design and Alyx Dennison’s otherworldly sound design; together, these elements form a symphony of dread.
Lewis wants us to linger in the moments between fear, when you’re trying to brush it off, or ward it from creeping back in again. But Bell and Gleeson feel like they’re most alive in the fear itself, their chemistry sparking strongest when they’ve finally raised their voices at each other.
Playwright Hilary Bell’s language is direct and straightforward, leaning on the expository, which doesn’t help – the play is stronger in its ideas and feeling than it is in its dialogue – and many of the Man and Woman’s retreading of arguments feels the same.
But there are moments when the play catches unsettling fire: when The Man crosses a relationship line by reminding Lucy of an open window; when a new voice is heard onstage for the first time; when the Man lifts a teapot in a game with his daughter and sand streams out.
The experience of seeing Splinter is all the better for them.
This content created with the support of City of Sydney