Victim and perpetrator come full circle and keep on spinning in Cate Blanchett’s production of David Harrower’s “Blackbird.” The acclaimed Scottish play, which dares to riff on the mutual attractions of the unnamed hot-button topic of pedophilia, was originally produced for 2005’s Edinburgh Festival and has since been mounted both in London and Off Broadway. It marks the first full-length helming assignment for Blanchett since taking on joint artistic directorship (with playwright husband Andrew Upton) of Sydney Theater Company.
As has been widely noted, the text owes much to, and raises the stakes on, David Mamet’s sexual-harassment drama “Oleanna.” The debt to Mamet’s play is redoubled here via the memory of Blanchett’s turn in a now-legendary 1993 STC staging of that play, which saw her perform opposite Geoffrey Rush to dynamite effect.
In Harrower’s play, fiftysomething manager Ray (Peter Kowitz) is visited at his pharmaceutical supplies workplace by smoldering 27-year-old Una (Paula Arundell). The connection between them is initially unclear, but as she aggressively strides around the debris-strewn company lunchroom, Una resembles a resentful hooker visiting a john who has developed cold feet.
Stalking a meek but occasionally defiant Ray and disassembling his denials, Una forcefully demystifies the origins of their previous sexual association: He was 40. She was 12.
From this point, the wisdom of Blanchett’s choice to stage the play in the round is apparent. The characters’ physical dilemma resembles their psychological one — both are encircled and entrapped by what transpired between them more than a decade before. Ray’s insistence that the door remain open only highlights the narrowness of the set’s three exits, which offer no escape, but still leave him susceptible to ambush from police or worse.
While revenge is discussed, Una’s driving motivation for the visit is left ambiguous. Ray (now using the name Peter) insists he has moved on from a once-only, horrible mistake.
Fast-paced production appears to take a daringly sympathetic view of Ray’s dilemma as Una see-saws from victim to aggressor and back again.
Arundell’s limitations as a performer give her character shrill overtones, leaving Una at a disadvantage as auds weigh up overwritten, schematic monologues offering protagonists’ respective sides of the story.
While Ray mostly appears excessively pathetic, it is his unconscious mannerisms, such as stroking Una’s discarded winter coat while she safely speaks to him from across the lunchroom, that betray his slumbering desire for her. Kowitz’s character may be weak-willed, but his is the perf that best illuminates most of the text’s paradoxes.
Sparing use of Max Lyandvert’s musical stings are effective in the best film music tradition of providing almost invisible, but invaluable nuance.
Blanchett opts to finish proceedings with a cinematic flourish, locking the pair in a “freeze-frame” tussle, somewhere between fight and dance, before a sudden cutting of the lights fleetingly leaves a ghostly after-image of their still unresolved struggle.
Handily for a production that already contains one descent into literal darkness, Arundell’s beaming curtain-call smile reassures the audience when lighting is resumed (too quickly, robbing the finale of its power), that the performance is complete and — for theatergoers at least — the disturbing nightmare is over.