Murder in Play takes metatheatre to new levels. A who-dunnit complete with not only a play-within-a-play but also with imbedded reference to the play-within-a-play of Hamlet, Murder in Play plays with the audience’s mind. Unfortunately, the Peterhouse production exacerbated the confusion.
The production opens with the characters speaking in exaggerated accents, sitting in a stilted manner and generally evincing awkward, unconvincing relationships. The acting is bad, but not bad enough to be pronounced blatant satire. Then the murdered ‘Mr Papadopoulos’ staggers on-stage. A flamboyant wig, dinner suit, and perfectly circular blood-stain he asserts, through a thick accent, the glaringly obvious: ‘I’ve…been…murdered!’ Ah, so we are watching a parody, after all. When Boris’ voice cuts across the scene with ‘And…curtain’, there is no longer any room for doubt: we have just witnessed a rehearsal of the play-within-a-play. Let the real acting begin!
The only hitch, though, is that there is no clear distinction – in either script or performance – between where the metatheatre stops and the theatre starts. Clearly, the play-within-a-play is intended to satirise incompetent acting. But should the play-proper, with its clichéd, two-dimensional characterisation (An arrogant, pretentious director eschews his snooty wife in favour of an attractive, but undeniably ‘stupid’, young thing) also be taken as a parody of the all-too-often formulaic nature of the modern stage? I just couldn’t tell.
Neither could this production: the characterisation is certainly unpersuasive but not in a humorously satirical way. Director Boris Smolensky (Lawrence Bowles) seems rather unthreatened by his supposedly terrifying wife Renee (Angela Liu), and by the apparent shambles in which his play finds itself; the bitchy animosity between Renee and Christa (Lisa McNally) is tentative rather than aggressively competitive. Bowles’ Russian drawl and Liu’s stuffy accent are both exaggerated, but not to the extent that we are reassured of their deliberate in-authenticity.
The effect of this ambiguity is that the play-within-a-play and the play itself start to look uncannily similar. In order to be effective, the satire of bad acting contained in the play-within-a-play relies upon its contrast with the realistic characterisation of the actual play. As this contrast is distinctly missing, the suspension of audience disbelief broken at the beginning of the first Act is never regained. We are constantly left waiting for another director to pop up and inform us that both plays are plays-within-plays. This doesn’t happen, and as the lights fade out at the production’s conclusion, we are left in the dark, in more than one sense.