DogOrange’s previous production was a taut, expressionistic take on a Chekhov short story Ward no 6; for their new project they’ve turned their attention to J.M.Barrie’s enigmatic, and rarely performed, ghost story, Mary Rose.
The play was written in the wake of the First World War, when the idea of the miraculous return of a lost loved one would have been particularly piercing; though, of course, the potency of that desire, to have those people once lost returned to you, will always exert an emotional hold. In a way the play feels like a companion piece to Barrie’s most enduring work, Peter Pan, but with a bleaker sensibility and a Lost Girl instead of a Lost Boy. Mary Rose is as much about the people left behind as those who disappear; it explores the horror of what would it would be like if someone were to come back, untouched by time, when the world has continued to turn in their absence and everyone in it has continued to age, to heal and grow and move on.
A young man returns from Australia to the home of his childhood; now abandoned and decaying, it’s a place where people don’t tend to linger and, as a result, is being sold for a knock-down price. Through a series of flashbacks the play reveals the history of the house and its occupants.
As a child, Mary Rose, the daughter of the house, is taken to visit a remote island in the Hebrides, a place known to locals as the “island that likes to be visited.” While she is out of her father’s sight, the young girl vanishes; they search and search but she is nowhere to be found. Three weeks later, she reappears in the place where her father left her, seemingly unaware of having been anywhere, of any time having passed.
Years later, her parents entrust the story of her disappearance to her fiancé, Simon, a no-nonsense naval type, but he disregards their words of caution and is happy to take his wife back to the island at her request. She greets the island like an old friend – and the island, it appears, feels the same. Whereas Peter Pan was threaded with the memory of lost mothers, here it is the lost son that prevents Mary Rose’s ghost from being free, that leaves her adrift in a foggy half-way world.
Director Matthew Parker’s past experience as a choreographer is clear in the way he groups and moves the performers. He peoples the stage with white-faced wraiths, anonymous stray souls, island spirits (it is they who whisk Mary Rose off to another realm), and there are some pleasing visual devices; the pop of flash bulbs is a recurring motif, bringing with it the idea of faces captured at a particular moment in time, fixed, unchanging. The use of sound, of chanting and moaning, is also interesting in the way it plays gently with the tropes of the ghost story – the desolate house, the hunched housekeeper, the mysterious island – though the devil-eyed glow of the rowan tree is perhaps a trope too far.
The company’s approach does not ignore the many quirks of Barrie’s play, its oddness. Though Mary Rose first performed in 1920, it looks backward in every sense and cumulates in a scene where an estranged son makes nervy small talk with his lost ghost mother. Rachel Copsey is perhaps a little too aggressively wide-eyed and perky as Mary Rose, though the role does call on her to be fizzy and girlish, younger than her years, still climbing apple trees and playing games even as Simon appeals to her parents for her hand in marriage. Her mother fears that a “cold finger had once touched my Mary Rose,” that some part of her was changed by her experiences on the island, but Copsey doesn’t quite get a sense of this across. There is also some nice playing by Phil Bishop as Cameron, the young Scottish lad who escorts them to the island and who Barrie amusingly paints as being superior to Simon in both manner and intellect.
But, for all this, the production never really gets under the skin of the play; crucially it’s not as haunting as it could be. The piece unfolds at an unhurried pace, slowed down further by some plodding comic episodes, and though Barrie’s writing hints at deeper, darker currents – of loss and separation, of forgetting and being forgotten – they remain far off and ethereal, shadows glimpsed in the corners.