Fortune play a comedy of manners

Claire Dougan (left) and Chelsea McEwan Millar rehearse Sarah Ruhl's  play <i>In the Next Room or...
Claire Dougan (left) and Chelsea McEwan Millar rehearse Sarah Ruhl's play <i>In the Next Room or the vibrator play</i> at the Fortune Theatre. Photo by Linda Robertson.
Instant happiness at the touch of a button is something we might all desire. The next production at the Fortune Theatre explores a time when the newly invented vibrator offered such a promise. Charmian Smith talks to director Lara Macgregor.

Sarah Ruhl's play In the Next Room or the vibrator play polarised audiences in New York, where it was a Pulitzer Prize finalist and nominated for a Tony award in 2010. However, productions in Sydney and Melbourne sold out and the seasons had to be extended, according to Fortune Theatre artistic director Lara Macgregor.

"In a puritanical society they struggled with some of the content, so I am curious to see how it goes here," she says.

The Fortune's production launches the 2012 International Science Festival "What makes us tick" on June 30.

Set in New York in the 1880s, it deals with topics such as female hysteria and its treatment by a male-dominated medical profession, female sexuality, the dawning of the age of electricity, wet-nursing and Victorian marriage, among other issues, but the subject matter is all based on historical fact, Macgregor says.

The vibrator as a medical device was actually the fifth domestic appliance to be electrified, after the sewing machine, fan, tea kettle and toaster, well before the vacuum cleaner and electric iron. It was a respectable appliance marketed for home use but disappeared from sale in the early 20th century when it appeared in pornographic films and it was no longer possible to avoid its sexual connotations.

Macgregor describes the play as a comedy of manners - people playing against their natural emotions because the etiquette of the time prevents them from being who they really are, and that breeds a lot of comedy.

A respectable New York physician, Dr Givings, treats women for hysteria, a diagnosis that covered almost anything from hot flushes and excitability to drowsiness and bursting into tears at any moment, she says.

There's a trend in medical diagnoses. Something can exist in society and nobody takes much notice, but once it's diagnosed by the medical profession it becomes different and everyone seems to suffer from it.

Female hysteria was one of these, and ADHD is a modern example, she explains.

"We are first introduced to hysteria through the character of Mrs Daldry, who is a patient. Her husband has brought her along and tells the doctor she's not the 17-year-old he married. She has stopped playing the piano, engaging in pretty laughter and is all morbid and morose and nothing happens in the bedroom. He's a less than exciting chap himself."

A cure for female hysteria was the newly introduced vibrator which the doctor used to give the patient a "pelvic massage" to produce a "spasm".

On the other side of the wall from Dr Givings' consulting room, his curious young wife Catherine listens to the sounds coming through the wall and wonders what is going on.

"She is on a quest to engage with her husband on an emotional level. It's not that they particularly have a terrible relationship, it's just he's a man of science and into his gadgets, and a man of the times in many ways as far as male intellect goes and how you deal with women and relationships," Macgregor says.

Catherine pushes into the room, and with the help of Mrs Daldry discovers what the vibrator does. She asks her husband to try it on her but he wants to keep her separate from his medical practice.

Catherine also has a baby daughter whom she can't feed, so a wet nurse is hired and she has to watch the black woman connect on a natural and emotional level with her daughter, something she longs to be able to do.

Another of Dr Givings' patients, an artist, is also suffering from hysteria.

He falls in love with the wet nurse and paints her as a madonna with a child at her breast.

Macgregor says he is probably a closet homosexual who has not realised it yet, falling in love with unattainable women. Even though he is male he is cured with the vibrator in the same way as the women.

"The play's not sensationalist in any way. It's really grounded in history and fact. By the nature of its subject matter it's funny - it can't help but be. We might be in trouble if we didn't have that humour. It's certainly the kind of subject we don't deal with every day," she says.

The elaborate costumes by Maryanne Wright-Smyth include 1880s underwear as the patients have to get undressed and dressed on stage with the help of Annie, the doctor's nurse.

See It
In the Next Room or the vibrator play by Sarah Ruhl, directed by Lara Macgregor opens at the Fortune Theatre on June 30.
It features Claire Dougan, Hilary Halba, Anna Henare, Nic Kyle, Chelsea McEwan Millar, Conrad Newport and Jason Whyte.

Sci fest gala
A fundraising gala night at the Fortune on June 30 will benefit the Otago Medical Research Foundation. The foundation supports a range of Dunedin-based research initiatives and has contributed to areas including chronic kidney disease, glue ear, the analysis of stroke and heart disorders, genetics, stem-cell investigation, the causes and suppression of throat bacteria and asthma.


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