On a sunny Saturday afternoon on 2 October 2021, Bravo Brisbane had the privilege of experiencing a harrowing tale from up-and-coming Brisbane playwright, Lachlan Driscoll. Presented by Observatory Theatre at the gothic Old Museum, Portraits is terrifying.
As the sun sets through the large stained-glass window behind the stage, the audience is immediately drawn into the nightmarish world of the Godbolds. The stage is set with a large kitchen table, a foreboding portrait of a family ancestor, two large wardrobes and a few other decorations reminiscent of a large family mansion. This set design by Driscoll along with the ominous setting of the Old Museum immediately transports the audience into the Godbold mansion.
From the very start, Driscoll’s vision for this production is clear as the use of the long, narrow stage area is employed with skill. The stage is divided into three segments: Ivan’s bedroom, a family dining room, and an entryway with an enormous looming front door. The action moves seamlessly from bedroom, to dining room to entryway. Driscoll is a very skilled director with a strong focus on pace and making use of the space. The action moves swiftly when it needs to build the tension as the drama unfolds and then at other times it moves scrupulously slowly to force the audience into flashbacks and snippets of memory. The deliberate choices regarding pacing are clear and keep the audience focused even through some very heavy, cynical material.
The play itself revolves around the drama that unfolds when the patriarch of the Godbold family, Ivan, is on his deathbed and his two children, Martin and Josephine (Josie), must confront their father’s legacy. The action centres on the conflict between youngest child, Martin, who seeks to take his rightful place in his father’s company, and his sister, Josie, who rejects her family and questions her brother’s loyalties to old traditions and the crumbling Godbold empire.
The audience is immersed in the middle of the action; placed right inside the Godbold mansion and even privy to the inner worlds of the characters as they experience flashbacks through soundbites and projection. This immersive sound design by Samuel Seagrott is highly effective and adds an additional dimension to the experience that makes the play feel as if it is half-dream, half-memory.
Ivan Godbold portrayed by James Hogan is absolutely terrifying and yet somehow genuinely human. His performance manages to capture something in this truly villainous character that we can all identify with – our own inherent mortality. Hogan is a skilled artist that commits everything to his role and this portrayal of Ivan. Hogan’s pacing, pronunciation and expressions are perfectly uncomfortable. His performance makes the audience feel so uneasy because of his skill at showing us something of ourselves in Ivan.
Emile Regano as Martin Godbold is yet another skilled performer that captures the emotions underlying this character’s actions with a level of truth and authenticity. Regano’s Martin is not a likable hero yet the audience understands his need to impress his father. Regano’s acting is wonderfully paced with an excellent variation in the power dynamics between when he approaches his father as opposed to his sister.
Robert Wainwright portrays a non-speaking Wilson who is an ever-present, threatening force in the world of the Godbolds. Wainwright’s portrayal is perfectly timed and his acting with his facial expression is phenomenal.
Rebecca Day’s portrayal of Josephine rounds out this cast with her amazing stage presence. Josie (Day) is a force to be reckoned with for Ivan (Hogan) and Martin (Regano) as she constantly bucks tradition and challenges their beliefs. Day is the perfect choice for this role with her commanding presence and her booming voice as she brings Josie to life. Day is a brilliant actor capable not only of memorizing the complicated, heavy text of this script but also to portray some of the most complex emotions in this play with skill and ease.
Overall, Portraits is a horrifying tale that perfectly encapsulates some very big questions around legacy and how much loyalty we owe to the ideals and values of our parents after they die. It is not exactly enjoyable to watch because it is so cynical, but it somehow feels necessary currently to ask these questions. Driscoll’s play explores legacy and tradition and begs the question: can we ever really break free from our legacy or are we merely products of our inheritance? Observatory Theatre’s production of Portraits moves the audience from their comfortable existence into the world of the Godbold mansion to face not only the ghosts of this family but also those of their own. Bravo!