In cramped domestic quarters, a manipulated servant-master dynamic is pushed to murderous retaliation; a simple, classical formula repeated time and time again. But it’s in this very repetition that Ninefold, a Sydney-based ensemble, find a darkly hilarious contemplation of the dramatic form itself in A Murder Story, Retold.
Set to select moments from Max Richter’s reimagining of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, a condensed murder story, told three times, breathes in compositional conversation with the music, amplifying different moments and details of the story each time. The structure is, therefore, entirely episodic, with the scene resetting in a visible, non-naturalistic whirlwind that invites its audience to settle into a stylistic mode of viewership.
As the retellings unfold, each of the three performers take their turn in playing the servant and the master in a slick cycle that collapses this power dynamic with critical clarity. From the varying tropes of farcical grossness portrayed by each actor as the master/victim, to their quiet satisfaction after instructing their attendant to carry out some foul task, we find ourselves quite quickly coerced into rooting for the servant/murderer.
Liam O’Keefe’s lighting design is symbolically inspired. With a bright, white strip lining the rectangular shape of the stage, the strictly enclosed narrative cycle is reflected in the sharp borders of the space. Washes of red and blue, that fade with the swelling music, paint a layer of theatricality over the cluttered, domestic realism of the set, but naturalistic opportunities for dramatic lighting are not overlooked either.
Ninefold’s signature style is born from their dedication to the Suzuki method of actor training. This is evident in the performers’ commitment to emotionally precise and purposeful physicality, even in moments of chaos. Most explosively, we see this in the choreographies that each chew up tropes of operatic melodrama and stylistically seep them back out with innovation and control. From Shy Magsalin’s purposefully panicked eyes, as she conceals poison in her mouth, to the toxic seizures that ripple intricately around Gideon Payten-Griffiths’ body, the skill and togetherness of these performers is the greatest credit to the performance.
Attention to detail is also observed in unexpectedly indulged moments that cinematically zoom our attention into mundane movements turned murderous, helped by the well-considered filming of the piece for digital viewership. Shane Russon’s hand slowly pulsates as it reaches for some wipes at a time-sensitive moment, and a contemplative sideways glance of a servant pushed to her emotional limits lasts a small, lethal eternity.
Any text, unless punctuated by silence, barely fights over the music and resists being clung to for much sense of naturalistic narrative. This layering, of live and recorded sound, reminds us that the score is something separate to the world of the characters, orchestrated to drive emotion and not necessarily plot. Where it’s often tempting for murder stories to overindulge in special effects, Ninefold’s employment of such is always economic and shocking.
As the cycle is neatly closed and the rule of repetition broken with Magsalin, our final master, successfully avenging her own murder before she collapses, the word that springs to mind is commitment. In a careful balance of shadowy intricacy and classical, operatic boldness, Ninefold are concocting their own poisonously exciting brand of drama.
A Murder Story, Retold streams online for Brighton Fringe. For more information and tickets, see the Brighton Fringe website.