In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play – A Review

Amidst all the end of term marking, I managed to get myself along to the first of my six theatre subscription plays I’ll be seeing this year with the Sydney Theatre Company. I thought I might add a review of the play, In The Next Room or The Vibrator Play to my growing list of posts.

In The Next Room is not what you’d expect. Outwardly, it looks like a period drama. Gorgeous 19th Century Victorian gowns and the large multi-roomed set by Tracy Grant Lord capture the wealth and beauty of middle class America during this period. Everyone is “oh so polite,” engaging in well mannered conversation and your typical niceties.

In the Next Room follows Catherine Givings and her husband Dr. Givings. Dr. Givings is in the business of treating hysteria with a new and revolutionary method of treatment: electric vibratory massage. In other words, a vibrator. In the meantime, Catherine is struggling to wean her child and is forced to hire a wet nurse to help keep her baby healthy. She is lonely, disempowered and longing to connect with her husband. 

Catherine becomes friends with one of the doctor’s regular clients Sabrina Daldry and becomes intrigued by the method in which she is being treated. Her curiosity leads her to discover how the tool works and discover a whole new way of thinking opening up to her. She faces her guilt at not being able to provide for her child, her loneliness and her longing to be deeply loved and connected to her husband.

The confined and refined nature of treatment in the 1800’s makes the situation of the “treatment sessions” and their true function rather humorous. Sarah Ruhl, the playwright, was intrigued by this, wanting to return to the days when showing any skin caused us to draw breath aghast. The sessions highlight the sexual confinement that women and men experienced during this time with treatment occuring “under the sheet”. That relationships were clinical, disempowering for women as they were powered by men and any romantic connection and/or sexuality was not explored. Rarely were men and women made aware of what these feelings could mean, let alone listen to them and act in a way that was wild and freeing. It was absolutely taboo to engage in anything sexual pre-maritally. Catherine distresses at one point in the play over the fact that Dr. Givings closes his eyes when they are intimate and would never dare see her undress. Ruhl, draws on the idea that it is the silence between the characters, what is not said, that makes them fascinating. There were countless more women in the theatre than men, with the majority of laughter and nodding heads coming from them because it is the things we don’t say or want to say that matter but our guilt or fear holds us back.

Jacqueline McKenzie is engaging and really draws out an energetic yet anxious Catherine. Her frantic-ness, anxiety, guilt and frustration seems to escalate right up until the final moments of the play when she and her husband are together in the street making snow angels.

I particularly liked Helen Thomson as Sabrina Daldry. Her naivety and innocence at what she is experiencing is funny whilst the connection she builds with the nurse, Annie (Mandy McElhinney) is beautiful and tender. It exemplifies what relationships should truly be about yet highlights the social restraints at the time which prevented this. The way both women, Catherine and Sabrina transform after the sessions is incredible. You see a power and a confidence come over them that was not there before.

David Roberts portrays Dr Givings as being enthusiastic about his work and oblivious to his wife. He accurately conveys his growing frustrations and jealousy as Catherine flirts with Leo Irving (Josh McConville) yet he tries to maintain a controlled and dignified 19th Century approach to marriage. Josh McConville as Leo adds another humourous touch to the play whilst Sara Zwangobani adds a demure tone to the play as wet nurse Elizabeth grieving at the loss of her own son yet providing milk for Laeticia, Catherine’s daughter.

Women and relationships have come so far since this time and with it we can see that many of the frustrations experienced in their time still exist today even with many of the social taboos no longer in existence. It is because of this that In the Next Room is both funny and thought provoking.

Image Credits:

Florence Dombey in Captain Cuttle’s Parlour – William Maw Egley, 1888, by rosewithoutathorn1984, used under Creative Commons.

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