Reproducing respected writer Anita Punton’s much loved 1994 production of ‘The Princess Ida Parlor’ was always going to be a challenge. Completely readapting IDA for a modern audience whilst also being forced to completely re-compose the score seems almost impossible. Yet, despite the potential setbacks, the indispensable Union House Theatre has triumphed once again in creating an engaging, informed and most of all, inspiring theatre experience. IDA retells the history of the first women to be enrolled and eventually graduate from The University of Melbourne in 1880, with Bella Guerin becoming the first woman to graduating with a university education in all of Australia. Beyond the importance of these women gaining the education they deserved, IDA specifically focuses on the history of the Princess Ida Parlor club (which once resided on the upper story of the east side of the Law Quad) and which presented these dauntless women with both a room of their own and a space to set in motion the future of Australian suffrage and feminism.
The writing of this piece was simply wonderful, gorgeously rich with knowledge yet simultaneously sparked with moments of humor. It was a well balanced blend that did not go unappreciated as the audience giggled along, and as I noted several remarks along the lines of “wow, I didn’t expect to learn so much!”. The audience, myself included, were particularly impressed by the utterly ingenious set design by Gabrielle Lewis, as the minimalist set made use of several sheer, exposed wooden beams to represent the famous arches of the Law Quad, fitted with LED lights and a beautiful inverse cut out in the stage floor for a little extra beauty and pizzazz. This stark yet versatile set has to be one of the best uses of a small-scale black box theatre I’ve witnessed in some time in either amateur or professional theatre. Similarly, the costuming by Natalie Gillis was utterly enviable, as each actor (especially the women) graced the stage with old-world beauty and flare. Now, whilst I do acknowledge that these fanciful ‘costumes’ laden with uncomfortable corsetry and hoop skirts were one tools used to constrain women both physically and in a societal sense, credit must be given where credit is due, and to call those costumes anything less than stunning would be a sin.
Upon exiting the theatre I was a little disappointed, thinking that overall, Ashlee Clapp’s composition failed to leave an impression and lacked a catchy tune that I would unconsciously sync my footfalls to as I walked home. However, I can gladly report that since that time such tunes as “Ida club club, Ida club club” has infiltrated every single aspect of my existence, so there’s my karma for speaking too soon. Regardless of what I thought of the score overall, I always intended to specifically highlight the number ‘In The Dark’ performed by Merryn Hughes. I cannot express what a truly bone-chilling, yet eerily familiar atmosphere this song provoked in me as a woman who frequently walks home alone. Petra Kalive’s fine direction certainly indulged this scene infinitely as the other actors stood side stage, banging strange objects and whispering to create an awfully creepy underlay to the subject matter of the song itself; I genuinely noticed the hairs raising on the back of my neck, as I’m sure did many others. Special mentions must go to two performers in particular, that being Hughes as Lillian Alexander and Emily White as Helen Sexton. Both showcased a discernible strength in singing, and could be quite clearly heard leading the way for the other less experienced singers during full company numbers. Emily White particularly displayed strong comedic timing and was as such was a standout of the performance.
Through this production, UHT have given a fine example of a dually well-conceived and well-perceived performance of feminist art. I would highly encourage all those interested, and even those not so interested, to treat themselves to a night at the Princess Ida Parlor, where both knowledge and laughter abound.
Union House Theatre’s production of IDA runs from the 10th-20th of October in the Guild Theatre.