Bringing theatre down to its bare essentials, 'The Sound Inside' takes you on an impactful journey along the paths of a winding relationship between professor and student, fluidly careening through their story like rapidly turning through the pages of an enthralling novel.
Written by Adam Rapp (Red Light Winter, Blackbird) in 2018, this Australian premiere from director Sarah Goodes (Home, I’m Darling) comes off the back of several Tony Award nominations, including 2020’s Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Play for Mary-Louise Parker’s portrayal of the lead character. After this critical success, it makes perfect sense for the Melbourne Theatre Company to bring this minimal production to life: especially in the age of COVID where smaller cast and crews are integral.
Through direct-audience-address fluidly morphing into slice-of-life scene work, Rapp’s melodic and prosaic dialogue evokes the lifetimes of the characters; channelling all the loneliness, love and listlessness that comes with it. Catherine McClements (Three Little Words) commands the stage as Bella Baird, an Ivy League literature professor in her 50s who finds herself alone but content as a teacher of creative writing with an endless collection of first edition books.
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Her life begins to change when Christopher Dunn, played by Shiv Palekar (The Real Thing), drops into her office without an appointment, but with a boisterous attitude and an undying passion for all things literature. With hopes of being the next great American writer, Bella Baird mentors him as he begins to write his own novel, but what this odd relationship evolves into as Bella is faced with her own existential crisis is where the heart of the play lies.
The core relationship between Bella and Christopher is endlessly believable, with McClements and Palekar finding that tricky balance of a teacher/student relationship that isn’t marked by awkwardness. Indeed, Palekar embodies the ideal of a young man aged beyond his years with his self-serious but stoic demeanour. This is challenged by McClements’ languid indifference but, at times, almost juvenile sense of comedy. These moments of lightness in the dark were extremely refreshing, allowing for the humanity of these characters to shine through without diminishing the tone.
The starkness of the Fairfax Studio matches the simplicity of the play. Elizabeth Gadsby and Jo Briscoe’s work on the set is an exercise in minimalism, with the stage only marked by one domineering street lamp from the beginning. As the stage turns on two opposing, revolving sections, a dynamic quality is lended to the way the two actors traverse the space. Few extra elements are layered, but always done with intention, and elevated by a surprising inclusion at the end.
Ultimately ending in tragedy, The Sound Inside elucidates hope through its dark interiors. Meditating on the power of literature and the connections people can forge between them, Adam Rapp’s dive into the lives of these two unlikely characters is enthralling to watch play out upon the stage. Conveying a multitude of shades that colour in the highs and lows of the human experience, The Sound Inside will leave you with a feeling of emptiness ready to be refilled by the vigour of life.
The Sound Inside runs from 20 May — 2 July 2022 at Melbourne Theatre Company, tickets and more info here.