Belvoir St Theatre’s adaptation of Charlotte Wood’s novel The Weekend is a thrilling representation of the heartbreaking mess of living. By Fiona Murphy.

Belvoir St Theatre’s The Weekend

Puppeteer Keila Terencio brings to life the mesmerising elderly dog, Finn, in The Weekend.
Puppeteer Keila Terencio brings to life the mesmerising elderly dog, Finn, in The Weekend.
Credit: Brett Boardman

“This was something nobody talked about: how death could make you petty,” writes Charlotte Wood in her novel, The Weekend. “And how you had to find a new arrangement among your friends, shuffling around the gap of the lost one, all of you suddenly mystified by how to be with one another.”

This quote is the hinge point for the novel’s stage adaptation, written by playwright Sue Smith, which is now running at Belvoir St Theatre in Sydney. The Weekend explores the decades-long friendship between a group of four women in their 70s. “I love this story because it is me,” writes Smith in her program note. “It is my friends and my friends’ friends. It is our mothers and our daughters, our aunties and our nieces.”

Wendy (Melita Jurisic), Jude (Toni Scanlan) and Adele (Belinda Giblin) are grappling with the loss of their friend Sylvie. Their usual mechanism for managing resentments and small grievances – namely everyone calling Sylvie to bitch about one another – no longer exists. Without Sylvie’s delicate mediation, the women flounder in one another’s company. Dynamics falter. Patience frays. Subterranean secrets threaten to surface.

It has been 11 months since Sylvie died. The women have agreed to gather at her holiday house to clear it out and ready it for sale, giving themselves a weekend to get the job done. To make the situation even more strained, it is Christmas, but the mood is anything but festive. Each woman questions the longevity of the friendship group now that Sylvie is gone.

The play’s set-up moves at a fast clip, splicing between the three women as they make their way up the coast from Sydney to the house. Jude is the first to arrive in her sleek, air-conditioned car. Quickly donning rubber gloves, she sets to work cleaning. Wendy’s wreck of a car breaks down on the freeway. Adele misses her train and eventually arrives in the heavy heat of the afternoon, ready for a swim. The monologues and phone calls are thick with exposition. These opening moments show the tension of adapting the novel for the stage.

In the novel, Wood’s descriptions of Bittoes – the small coastal town where the holiday house is located – are lyrical and effortlessly evocative. She slowly pans around, taking in “the bay that glittered beyond the trees” as well as the house and its accretion of stuff. In the production, the sparsely furnished set is bullied to life with these opening monologues. Jude is charged with describing the cluttered house and the meaning of the white chair – a luxe hand-me-down she gave Sylvie. Adele describes the weather and the house’s surrounds – all sharp blue skies and cool, inviting water. Wendy maps out their relationships and how they have changed since Sylvie’s slow death.

These moments of scene setting are unnecessary. The soundscape created by composer Steve Francis and sound designer Madeleine Picard infuses the stage with the humid haze of summer. Video design (Susie Henderson) and lighting (Damien Cooper) add texture and depth to each scene.

Once the women are sharing the stage, the rhythm of the script loosens. The set design (Stephen Curtis) begins to feel both grounded and expansive and the dialogue becomes magnetic. The women are at once sharp and witty, tender and cruel with one another. Alliances shift from beat to beat. The audience laughs frequently and gasps at each small, cutting jab. It is thrilling theatre.

Jurisic, Scanlan and Giblin are perfectly cast. Under the guidance of director Sarah Goodes and choreographer Charmene Yap, their performances are layered with a kind of easy intimacy and physicality that only comes from deeply forged friendship. Throughout the production, each character experiences moments of wounding loneliness, the particularly startling and painful variety felt while in the company of your “dearest friends”.

Although death and grief permeate the play, the theme of mortality isn’t stifling. It is a shadow stitched underfoot, slinking along, at turns lengthening and shortening. The theme of ageism is thrust to the fore. “Everybody hated old people now,” Wood wrote in the novel. “It was acceptable, encouraged even, because of your paid-off mortgage and your free education and your ruination of the planet.”

Wendy, Jude and Adele – far from the stereotypes of older women – don’t spend their days reminiscing or wallowing in stasis. They are too busy living. Wendy, a world-renowned academic and author, has more books to write. Adele, a once celebrated actress, is frantically attempting to rustle up more acting work after two years of unemployment. Jude, a former restaurateur, is planning her annual summer escape with her married lover. Any stigmatising views about ageing are harboured by Joe Gillespie, played by the comedically gifted Roman Delo.

In among the humans is Wendy’s elderly dog, Finn, whom puppeteer Keila Terencio brings to life with deeply empathic and transfixing detail. The 17-year-old dog lumbers softly and aimlessly around the stage. He mesmerises the audience, many keenly tracking his every movement.

With low vision, deafness and dementia, Finn is unable to follow any instructions. Jude is furious that Wendy has brought an incontinent animal to the holiday house. The dog becomes a release valve for the women. While they struggle to voice their true feelings to one another, Finn shapeshifts from comfort and confidant to an object of rage and resentment. Such is his presence – powerful and mythic – that Finn is considered a soothsayer (“knowing” about Sylvie’s illness long before anyone else) and even a vessel for the ghost of Sylvie.

In a recent interview on The First Time podcast, Wood describes her role in the adaptation as being that of “an absolutely ecstatic onlooker”. Though she was invited to be part of the process, Wood declined. She happily gave over “complete creative freedom” and “trust”. “I have no attachment to any of it,” she told Smith. “Change everything. Take it apart. Make the dog a bird … or take [him] out altogether.”

This cornerstone of trust makes the adaptation flourish. It is shorter, tighter, more contained than the book. Without an intermission, the audience is immersed in 100 minutes of messy, joyful, furious life. It is an absolute gift that breaks and warms the heart in equal measure. 

The Weekend is playing at Belvoir St Theatre, Sydney, until September 10.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 19, 2023 as "Grief and grievances".

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