Stephen Sewell is one of Australia’s most established playwrights and one of the least conventional. “The Secret Death of Salvador Dali,” originally written in 1997, the same time as his screen adaptation for his more orthodox “The Boys,” is a hectic ride.
The opening scene finds Salvador Dali reclining within a gigantic white stuffed coil, twisted into a snail shape. Thesps Trevor Stuart and Julie Eckersley embody no less than 16 characters, representing Dali and the pivotal people in his life. Each character appears for just a few minutes at a time. It makes for an impressive display of the thesps’ skills, but an oftentimes dizzying journey for the audience.
This seems to be precisely Sewell’s intention. His decision to explore the troubled psyche of one of the most controversial artists of the 20th century was never going to result in a tame production. Still, the production is quite self-conscious, possibly because Sewell is cognizant that his bid to uncover the “real” Dali would have been anathema to the artist.
Props are few, just the gigantic coil, a flat disc clock as seen in Dali’s painting “Persistence of Memory” and the thesps’ ever-changing white garb, reminiscent of infancy, hospitalization and death.
Originally commissioned by Griffin Theater Co. in 1997, “Dali” has never been produced in its original three-hour, three-thesp form. Director Scott Maidment worked with Sewell to whittle it back to an 80-minute, thoroughly avant garde two-hander. It played in that form at the 2000 Brisbane Festival and later at the Adelaide Fringe Festival, both times in a tent, with significant contributions from violinist Shenzo Gregorio. Gregoria’s role in this Griffin homecoming production, refashioned by David Berthold, has been pared back to fit the physical constraints of the intimate Stable Theater, where auds perch on benches just inches from the small stage.