Theatre

Carissa Licciardello’s adaptation of John Cassavetes’ Opening Night at Belvoir offers teasing glimpses of what might have been. By Cassie Tongue.

Opening Night

Leeanna Walsman as Myrtle and Virginia in Opening Night.
Leeanna Walsman as Myrtle and Virginia in Opening Night.
Credit: Brett Boardman

We walked out of a thunderstorm and into the rain. In Opening Night, Carissa Licciardello’s adaptation of the 1977 John Cassavetes film, stormy droplets fell from the ceiling onto leading lady Myrtle (Leeanna Walsman) just as they had fallen on us as we closed our umbrellas and stepped inside the Belvoir theatre foyer.

Given that this play collapses the boundaries between the imaginary and the real, it felt like a knowing, cosmic wink.

Opening Night is an art-house psychological horror that follows Myrtle (played onscreen by the remarkable Gena Rowlands) through rehearsals of a new play called The Second Woman. Myrtle, an actor of great renown, is struggling with the role. She can’t connect with the character she’s playing; one of her young fans dies shortly after meeting Myrtle at the stage door, which leaves her shaken; she’s drinking too much. She says the play has no hope, and there’s little hope in her offstage life. Myrtle descends to a dark place.

It’s not surprising that a film about the process of making theatre has a history of adaptations for the stage. The experimental Belgian director Ivo van Hove toured a stage version laden with cinematic technique in 2010. In 2016, an Australian all-female and non-binary team led by Nat Randall and Anna Breckon devised The Second Woman, a 24-hour durational piece that extrapolated the gendered abuses of power and control lurking at the film’s core and brought them to the forefront.

Licciardello takes a different approach. Her play, which she also directs, is straightforwardly theatrical. There’s no live feed, unlike van Hove or Breckon and Randall before her; instead, she highlights the play-within-a-play device. The set, designed by David Fleischer, represents a hotel room and never changes, which heightens the psychological elements of the story. The director, Manny, lurks at the lip of the stage, or sits in audience seats, to give his notes. We learn that we can’t trust what we see.

Licciardello is an admirably economical translator between mediums. Her passage selections and surgical excisions led to a faithfully rendered stage adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own (Belvoir 2020). Her Opening Night retains the film’s key dialogue and overarching structure, and it also streamlines the plot by cutting the characters down to just six: Myrtle; Manny (Luke Mullins); the young fan, Nancy (Caitlin Burley); Marty, Myrtle’s co-star (Matthew Zeremis, played by understudy Anthony Harkin on opening night); Sarah, The Second Woman’s playwright (Toni Scanlan); and Kelly, her dresser (Jing-Xuan Chan). The play runs for 100 minutes without an interval and moves well within that time frame.

But something is lost in Licciardello’s Opening Night: it doesn’t account for the nuance of the camera. Without that probing, often red-washed gaze, Myrtle becomes almost as much of a cipher as Virginia, the woman she plays.

The reason she can’t learn her lines or connect to her character, Myrtle says repeatedly, is that she doesn’t understand her. What does Virginia do when she’s alone? What does she think about? Neither Manny nor Sarah can give her an answer, and we come to understand that The Second Woman hasn’t given Virginia an inner life.

Unfortunately, this adaptation doesn’t give Myrtle an inner life, either. When she is outside the play, she only talks about the play. Because we slip between performance scenes from The Second Woman and the “reality” of the world of Opening Night, we can’t be too sure when we’re seeing Myrtle or Virginia. We have no idea what she thinks about beyond her role when she is alone. She isn’t a woman, she isn’t a person: she’s an actor.

This would be a difficult part for anyone. Walsman takes on the challenge admirably, nobly bearing the suffering of both Virginia and Myrtle, diving deep into ugliness and vulnerability when required. It just feels as if it comes from arm’s length. We never really know her; we can’t quite feel this journey in its desired depth.

It also doesn’t help that the collapse of storylines and subplots reduces the playwright, Sarah, to something of a scold. Her crisp, unsympathetic approach to her own writing, and to Myrtle’s obvious pain, places them at distinct, irritated odds. In the film, there’s something more interesting between the two – it’s still an opposition, but it’s also a complication of function, relationship and role. Sarah reaches out more of a hand when Myrtle is in distress, even if she rolls her eyes immediately afterwards, and Myrtle leans on her for some sort of grace or witnessing, even if it never comes.

This Opening Night would benefit richly from more of these complications. To better make her point about the gendered cruelties present in theatre, Licciardello paints Manny as a cartoonish, misogynistic villain. He has little time for playing to Myrtle’s ego; his cruelty is closer to the surface. His back is almost always to the audience. We don’t hear his words as much as the rebuke in his tone. It’s all flattened.

Perhaps this is because Opening Night, as a film, simply isn’t straightforward. Where we land – in a play that carefully shows that it is difficult for women to age in modern society; that theatre itself is often misogynous; that these two factors combined can have lasting negative effects on our mental health – feels less like an examination of power, control and selfhood than a demonstration for the already converted.

Even the theatrical representation of Myrtle’s abyss feels dated. As she seems to lose her grip on what’s real and what isn’t, there’s a lot of body-doubling, repetitive journeys across the playing space and the expanded use of the dead Nancy as symbol. These are all devices we’ve seen before, and as the production continues – sturdy and sure, confidently conventional – it feels comfortable when what we’re hungering for instead is danger.

Licciardello is still early in her writing and adapting career, and her clarity of vision feels like a glimpse of the future. There are hints of wildness in Opening Night that offer a taste of possibility. The rain device evolves into a momentarily stunning coup de theatre that dissolves any remaining boundaries between the play’s and Myrtle’s realities, and Nick Schlieper’s lightning flashes and moody lighting – the film favoured red while this production plays with the cooler depths of night-time blues – hint at all manner of inner storms.

The play’s conclusion also shows what’s possible. The titular event is full of subversive surprises as Myrtle takes the play into her own hands. It’s thrilling: Licciardello’s writing is sharp, stinging and funny, and she cleverly inverts and remixes past conversations and past scenes to present a final moment where Myrtle is fully in control. It’s gloriously triumphant.

It just arrives too late. Maybe if we had seen more glimpses of Myrtle within the first 90 minutes – the Myrtle of close-ups, the Myrtle carried on film in Rowlands’ voice and bearing, the Myrtle who Walsman offers in the final scene – it would have felt right on time. 

Opening Night plays at Belvoir St Theatre, Sydney, until March 27.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 12, 2022 as "Late arrival".

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Cassie Tongue is a theatre critic and writer living on unceded Gadigal land.

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