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  • Writer's pictureAlex First

The Well (MTC) - 90 minutes without interval

Well, well, well, indeed!

Quite literally, in this case.

As the name of the play suggests, a hole in the ground plays a critical part in proceedings in Louris van der Geer’s adaptation of English-born, Australian writer Elizabeth Jolley’s gently built thriller.

The novel won the Miles Franklin Award in 1986.

Hester Harper (Nadine Garner) has lived most of her life on a farm.

Until relatively recently she did so with her father and then he died.

Now middle-aged, Hester, who never married, is left alone on the large property.

On a whim she takes in a 16-year-old orphan, Katherine (Tamala Shelton), who is full of life and most appreciative.

Katherine willingly tackles her chores, eager to learn from Hester. The pair strikes up a bond.

Hester’s inquisitive financial adviser, Mr Bird (Paul English), suggests the place is too big for Hester to manage on her own – even with Katherine’s help.

He indicates she could get top dollar for it because there is a keen buyer in the form of retail attendant Mrs Borden’s (Heidi Arena) husband who is looking to expand their lodgings after the birth of their seventh child.

Further, he is concerned the market may drop in future due to drought.

Hester acts accordingly and she and Katherine move to a smaller cottage, to which there is an adjacent well.

All is going swimmingly (no pun intended), until a road accident changes everything.

At 90 minutes without interval, The Well is a play with two distinct halves – namely before and after the incident.

The first stanza sets the scene of the mutually beneficial relationship between Hester and Katherine.

It talks to their reliance upon one another and their shared enjoyment.

The pivot takes on a decidedly more sinister tone.

The focus becomes dealing with the consequences of their actions.

Suddenly they no longer see eye to eye and the ramifications are profound.

A subtext involves Hester’s recollections of her past relationship with her strict German governess.

For all intents and purposes, this is a play reading. It is certainly not a full scale production.

But far from a bland affair, Garner and Shelton’s theatrics – verbally, physically and through facial movements – together with a brilliant soundscape, developed by Camilla Hannan, bring the characters and the setting to life.

The sound effects are pivotal to the play’s success.

The only props on stage are two steel, oval-shaped buckets, with all four actors dressed in black, scripts in hand.

I was particularly taken by Garner’s showing. She has the lion’s share of the dialogue and makes it sing. She transforms into Hester.

Shelton’s versatility, too, is delightful.

English takes the role of narrator, which he handles with aplomb, as well as assuming the persona of Mr Bird.

Louris van der Geer has done a fine job translating The Well into an absorbing and engaging piece of theatre, in which the screws are tightened.

Sarah Goodes’ exemplary direction completes a triumphant return to the Melbourne stage for MTC after a COVID-19 hiatus in excess of 300 days.

The Well is on at Southbank Theatre, The Sumner until 30th January, 2021.

Finally, MTC has done everything possible to comply with coronavirus protocols and I commend the company for it.


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