What’s it like in there? How do we climb inside the minds of the most intelligent, creative, offbeat or frightening people we know?
Actor Catherine McClements is up to the task of finding out. Her character in Melbourne Theatre Company’s new thriller delves into The Sound Inside – the imagination and intelligence we harbour in our brains, often channelled by the literature we love.
Explaining this, she can’t keep still. In a break from rehearsals, she’s on the edge of her seat, all animation, hands whirling to make a point as she tries to bring her character alive while still sitting down.
If this is the life of the mind, it certainly sends a charge through her body. Among many things, the play’s about characters who love books . . . they understand their lives through books and stories, she says. The two characters are quite alone in some ways but live a full life in other ways through writing and reading stories.
The play’s thriller element comes from the close bond the characters forge and the secrets that may emerge as a story darkens between them.
Bella (McClements) is a professor at Yale University, tenured in the creative writing faculty. She befriends one of her students, they form a deep relationship and she asks him to do something quite – difficult, she says. How that plays out is a story they create even while dwelling on the imaginations of others.
The actors and director skirt around any spoilers, but reviews of the American production suggest a riveting mystery awaits. The Sound Inside was the Broadway debut of writer Adam Rapp and capped a successful season with a Tony nomination for best play in 2020.
Rapp not only works across several forms – stage, screen, novels, directing – he also played semi-professional basketball when younger. New Yorker critic John Lahr described his style thus: He has, as they say in the vernacular of the sport, some terrific moves: he’s swift, he can change pace, he can get inside your head.
Critics enthused about the New York production and Mary-Louise Parker’s performance as Bella, an academic who, said one critic, treasures great literature, but has made no room in her life for someone to share that love with . . . She lives almost entirely in her head, which is where she stores her scathing wit and deepest secrets. But for some reason, she’s decided to share those secrets with us . . . Bella is a hoot.
Wit and humour penetrate the loneliness – which will be a comfort, if loneliness as a subject seems too close to the bone for those troubled by solitude.
These are people spending too much time in their inner life through reading, says director Sarah Goodes. We can fall in love with books and read and read and we sometimes don’t want to leave that world.
References to Salinger and Dostoevsky pop up in her conversation but she insists audiences don’t need to know the literary canon to understand how the play can intrigue us with its created stories.
That’s what stories are, says McClements. The hardness of life, the pain, the beauty; we can all live it because we tell stories that make it seem meaningful.
We first encounter Bella when she tries to tell the audience who she is, says McClements. She goes into detail about how do you describe someone in a book. Do you just say she has a shock of white hair, or do you talk about where she grew, up, where does she go for dinner, how does that person come alive in someone’s imagination? At the same time, I’m an actor standing in front of an audience. How am I going to become that person in front of you?
In that light, performance is perhaps the actor’s corollary of the writer’s challenge — the terror of the blank page, the struggle to write, as Goodes describes it.
Asked how he begins work, Rapp has said: Often I’ll think about an arrangement of people in a room that either frightens or intrigues me in some way . . . I was thinking about two extremely lonely people sitting across from each other at the table of a small eat-in kitchen and one of them wanted very badly to disappear. I didn’t know which one wanted this.
Shiv Palekar plays Christopher, the intense student who may be an intellectual match and spiritual ally for Bella. Palekar himself has been stuck inside his own head for longer than he’d ever hoped. His last stage appearance was in Sydney Theatre Company’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane in 2019, before he got stuck in Hong Kong when borders closed.
Quarantining in a hotel room for a seven-week stretch, he auditioned for this play on Zoom. It was a particularly dark time for me, he says. When I read the play, I was spellbound — the isolation spoke to me in a very deep way.
He had another reference point – he’d met Rapp several years ago when the writer travelled from New York to lead a workshop with NIDA students in Sydney. He recalls Rapp as calm and quiet. The pace of everything was quite slow. There was no rush to get to any answers.
Given its exploration of solitude and the life of the mind, is this a play for our times?
There are plays that suddenly feel right, says McClements. I remember a long time ago when I did The Crucible, we were coming out of the ’80s and suddenly men were saying ‘how am I going to be a good person — we’ve made money, money is greed, how do we speak to that? ’ If you’re a good programmer, you know the play that will speak to the times.
Goodes says that having gorged ourselves on Netflix, theatre gives us a chance to sit in a theatre and talk about storytelling.
What theatre can do is change the temperature of the room, because it is storytelling around the fireplace, she says. I think the last thing we should do now is go ‘let’s be happy, happy, happy’. There’s a stillness to this piece, something about how much you actually need other people – theatre can take people inside this.
The Sound Inside is at Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre Melbourne, until July 2. mtc. com. au