There are singers who act and actors who sing. Simon Gleeson considers himself one of the latter.
Internationally regarded for his work in musical theatre (he played Jean Valjean in the 2014 Australian revival of Les Miserables before joining the West End cast in 2016), Gleeson is exercising the dramatic side of his skill set in Splinter, Hilary Bell’s suspenseful story of a couple whose worst nightmare – the disappearance of their five-year-old daughter – is exponentially intensified when the child is mysteriously returned nine months later, apparently unharmed.
“I don’t really like the differentiation between ‘straight theatre’ and musical theatre,” Gleeson says. “I think both terms conjure up weird and unhelpful notions in your head.”
That said, what is demanded of the music theatre performer and the dramatic actor is, Gleeson admits, very different.
“In musical theatre, you are elongating moments of emotion beyond their natural time frame. In theatre, you move on because, without music, it’s impossible to sustain. So there’s a huge difference in energy required – not just to make the sound but to hit the back wall with it in a big auditorium.”
Playing on the Griffin stage, just inches away from the audience, requires a different energy, Gleeson says, but no less intense a focus.
“That front row is so front row,” he laughs. “They are so right there, so involved. It’s like they’re part of the show you’re acting in. It feels like we’re all sitting in a little beach shack, with the rain falling outside, basically all going through the same thing together.”
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In Lee Lewis’s production of Splinter, the audience also shares a role in the creation of the show. Just like Gleeson and colleague Lucy Bell, they have to actively imagine the presence of a child. Splinter is an exercise in collective creative imagination as much as it is a depiction of a couple falling apart.
In the play’s first production at Sydney Theatre Company in 2012, the returned child was represented by a puppet, Gleeson explains. “When we started, I was thinking not having anything there at all might be too weird for people. But it makes perfect sense to me now and it’s amazing to see the audience buy into it. They behave as if there is someone there. They watch her. It’s incredible to experience.”
A little theatre magic helps with the illusion. “Lucy and I spent a lot of time working out exactly where the child is at any time,” Gleeson confides. “And we worked out how tall she is so we can maintain the same eye-line.”
Splinter is the first two-hander Gleeson has performed in. He and Bell don’t leave the stage for the play’s 80 minutes.
“Once you’re on, you’re on,” he says. “You don’t get to exit and critique yourself, or think, ‘that scene went strangely tonight’. You are in for the ride and kept in by gravity, in a way. It’s a really nice feeling to be so constantly engaged.
“We’re so used to stories coming at us at 100 miles per hour and there is as much unsaid in the story as is said. Hilary has scripted a whole world that we don’t talk about, which gives a unique pace to the piece.”
After the show, Gleeson notes, it’s not unusual to see audience members lingering in their seats, discussing their experience.
“I’d like to think they are thinking about what is truth? And what people will do to keep a family together and to keep love alive. And the insidious nature of doubt when it creeps in. Is it possible to make your love strong enough?”
While it’s Gleeson’s first time at Griffin, it’s his third production with director Lee Lewis. He featured in David Williamson’s satirical play Rupert in 2013 and performed in her Melbourne Theatre Company production of Noel Coward’s Hay Fever in 2017.
“Lee creates a great environment in the rehearsal room and her ideas are always really clever,” says Gleeson. “She is courageous and supportive and she also has a wealth of knowledge about Australian plays through her work at Griffin. I can’t think of anyone better to give Splinter its second life.”
Splinter plays at Griffin Theatre until October 12. It also plays the Butter Factory Theatre, Albury, October 15-19