By BRUCE DENNILL
Fatal Attraction / Directed by Paula Bangles / Pieter Torien’s Montecasino Theatre, Fourways, Johannesburg 7
A stage version of the Michael Douglas and Glenn Close screen thriller of the same name that long ago became a byword for any relationship in which matters took a turn for the unpredictable and violent (including anything in which the term “bunny-boiler” was used), Fatal Attraction, on paper, looks like an idea past its time. Until, that is, you consider that the film was released in 1987, meaning that, for a sizeable part of the audience for the play, this is a first exposure to the story.
Also, the way this production is staged changes the flow of the story considerably. Everything happens in a square central space dominated by a two-level white dais, with narrow corridors on three sides the only concessions to physically depicting characters as being in different geographical spaces. There’s also a sense of the action (as opposed to the script) being I, which is an odd term to use in relation to movement and scene changes, but which best describes the no-frills jumps from one setting and physical or emotional connection to the next.
This means that the characters – Dan Gallagher (Ashley Dowds), Beth Gallagher (Jenny Stead), Alex Forrest (Jazzara Jaslyn), Jimmy (Alex Tops) and Joan Rogerson (Jo da Silva) – are never very far apart, and are often still moving past each other as the next scene, in which they do not feature, begins. It’s a set-up that requires buy-in from the audience, and it’s easy to invest in in that way, particularly because it means the piece is slicker and more sophisticated than a number of older plays in which blackouts require the actors to rush around before materialising in different places, rather than maintaining this sort of fluidity.
One aspect of this starkness is that the absence of physical space is in some ways reflected by a restriction on the conceptual room the actors are allowed to develop their characters. Again, though, expectations are confounded, as this has the effect, not of making the characters one-dimensional or boring, but of making them more sympathetic than you’d expect, given the thrust of the story.
Dan is a lawyer who, while not a sleazeball, is hardly a moral beacon. His wife Beth is focusing the bulk of her energy on being the best mother possible, which involves, among other things, overseeing a move out of the city centre in which the family currently lives to a home with more space and a better support system (in the person of her mother Joan). Jimmy is Dan’s best friend, a sweet enough guy, but recently divorced and not an ideal role model in relationship terms. And Alex is the outsider, an attractive woman who approaches Dan at a nightclub and ends up becoming entangled in every level of his formerly relatively simple life.
None of them are entirely likeable, but the script for the play (adapted by James Dearden from the film’s screenplay) makes them far less archetypal than they are in the film. Dan is not a victim and his handling of the situation is poor, but some of the consequences of his actions seem unnecessary. Alex is unstable, but she also has a number of completely reasonable perspectives. Beth is not absent or hostile; she is temporarily preoccupied with an aspect of her and Dan’s marriage that requires – for a season – closer attention than he is giving it. All of these blurred lines allow the focus to remain on the theme of the play: adultery and the complexity of the inevitable fallout, which is far more interesting than a simple scary incident, both during and after the performance, when the topic lingers naggingly for anyone who made an effort to engage with the piece.
Given the effects of the design and the aforementioned editing, the cast are not really given the platform on which to really spread their wings dramatically. Tops certainly has the most fun as the irresponsible and irrepressible Jimmy, and Dowds, who is on stage for the duration of the play, is a convincing pivot for everyone else to respond to, as well as for the developing plot. Stead is straight and solid as the relatively sensible Beth (as is Da Silva as her mom) and Jaslyn handles the growing edginess and apparent psychosis of Alex with aplomb.
There is plenty of style here and, though it is not as superficially obvious, a good deal of substance as well.