‘Belvedere’ Is a Psychological Thriller Which Lacks Substance: Review

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Image Credit: Matt Carnazza

★★✰✰✰

Ana-Maria Bamberger’s play Belvedere, showing for a limited time at the Old Red Lion Theatre, is a short play with grand ambitions. For a show centred around complex issues of literary creativity, mental health and the power of the imagination, this performance is often busy, and engaging throughout, though ultimately it lacks substance.

Upon entering the auditorium, Anton (Dan March) sits already waiting on a stage filled with two chairs, a desk and a bookcase. As we wait for the play to begin, Anton stares intensely at his crossword puzzle while low-level, indeterminable recordings mutter away as background noise. Anton, we learn, is a successful writer who has checked himself into the Belvedere psychiatric clinic after suffering from hallucinations. Dr Defoe (Stefan Menaul) is Anton’s psychiatrist, not psychologist—a distinction which Defoe is quick to point out—who Anton, perhaps due to his paranoia, believes is exploiting him as a subject for a medical paper on the link between schizophrenic hallucinations and creative writing.

The coupling between mental health disorders and one’s imaginative capacities is a theme that underpins the play. Several times, after musing over his long conversations with fictive individuals he believes to be real, Anton remarks how his novels basically write themselves. There is a creative freedom, Anton believes, which accompanies his psychiatric condition. Equally, he scolds the medical pills which Dr Defoe prescribes to him to treat his hallucinations, complaining that they serve only to turn his brain to mush. The connection between unique levels of imaginative creativity and mental instabilities is both fascinating and real—the most notable example being, perhaps, John Nash (and Russell Crowe’s depiction of him in the film A Beautiful Mind).

After some snappy dialogue between Anton and Dr Defoe, we begin to witness Anton’s creative process in action. A yellow hue swamps the stage when a strange female figure enters the set. Stephanie (Tracy Ann Wood) is a mysterious person from Anton’s past who at first causes him some distress, before unlocking a series of warm memories within him. There are moments of real tenderness in the dialogue between Anton and Stephanie; they share an incident of humanity while remembering old times, over a game of cards. Soon, Stephanie inspires a creative spark in Anton which rouses some jealousy in Dr Defoe and causes Anton to question everything.

Lydia Parker’s direction cleverly ensures that neither Stephanie, nor any trace of Stephanie (including a rose she tries to gift Anton), appears on the set at the same time as Dr Defoe. The intended effect of this decision is to encourage us to keep considering whether the visitor is real, or a hallucination. To complicate the issue even further, Anton begins to doubt whether Dr Defoe is actually real, or whether he is also a creation of his imagination. And, we may be confident in our belief of what is real and what is not until the play ends somewhat abruptly.

Belvedere’s subject matter is provocative and has the potential to be thrilling. Though with a runtime of only sixty minutes there is little opportunity for the characters to properly flesh out the substance of the play. And while ambiguity would generally lend itself effectively to a play of this genre, Belvedere’s sudden ending and lack of character development leaves one feeling unsatisfied rather than stirred with curiosity.

Words by Jack Rondeau

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