We knew as soon as we arrived in the lobby at the Heath Ledger Theatre that the stage would soon be aquiver with excitement, racing hearts and ecstatic moans.
For there, neatly arranged in glass display cases, was an astonishing collection of vintage vibrators, most of large, distinctly industrial design.
Nowadays miniaturization has assisted the handiness of these pulsing gizmos. Once you’d hardly fit one in a sea chest; but now they slot easily alongside the Guerlain lippy in your Louis Vuitton clutch (and elsewhere, for that matter).
The curious foyer compilation was intermixed with dog-eared advertising literature, promoting the healthful benefits derived from the application of the whirring appliances.
We were attending the opening night of playwright Sarah Ruhl’s entertaining, occasionally hilarious, In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play– hence the aforementioned exotic ‘helpers’ under glass.
The Black Swan State Theatre Company has done a sterling job with this 1880s American tale of concealed sexuality, prudish etiquette, dubious remedies, psychology, new-fangled electric gadgets and, most importantly, dreadfully suppressed mores of the era.
‘Hysteria’ was a common medical diagnosis for women at the time and it was thought the condition could be treated with some, well, good vibrations.
Ruhl has effectively re-created this curious chapter in the early history of psychotherapy, even if, in reality, it was mostly first-class quackery applied by lewd fellows harbouring erotic intentions.
Dr Givings, an highly rational and clinical gentleman medical scientist, has pioneered the use of the vibrator and operates a home surgery for women beset with nervous disquiet and anxiety.
He obsesses about the marvels of electricity and technology (countryman Thomas Edison is his demigod) and what it can do for his strait-laced, twitchy patients.
The story begins to develop when an ‘hysterical’ patient is brought in by her rather hidebound husband. She sees the doctor and curiously starts returning daily with blithe abandon for more of his amazing remedy.
Although observant and attentive from a scientific standpoint, the doctor fails to notice that his wife, Catherine, is feeling completely neglected.
Even attempts to nurse their newborn child are faltering, so she engages a wet nurse to help out, who, it transpires, has her own heart-rending offspring issues.
Though he spends his days providing pleasure with his devices, Dr Givings cannot do the same for his dejected wife. Craving intimacy, Catherine becomes increasingly interested in her husband’s patients and alternative activities that her social status and proper upbringing have denied her.
She soon begins to discover the truth about what goes on ‘in the next room’ – as if the deafening moans and orgasmic yowls reverberating through the Givings residence have not already aroused suspicion enough.
At one point, the good doctor swaps genders and applies one of his electric contraptions to a confused and lovelorn chap freshly returned from an artistic sojourn in Italy. It’s a scene that may go down as one of the funniest to ever grace a Western Australian stage (these are often unintentional), and will doubtless provide a titbit of titillation for undeclared sadists in the audience.
As spousal tensions mount, jealousies build between mother and wet nurse, liaisons increase among patients, and even the doctor’s prim assistant defies Victorian convention, the narrative entanglements become positively Gordian. And all this to the curious, soft, monotone hum of a vibrator.
This is a fun play. The acting is good, the stage design original and the direction impressive.
Ruhl’s writing is a first class, which is to be expected from a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist and Tony Award nominee. Her plays have been produced on Broadway at the Lyceum by Lincoln Center Theater, off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons, Second Stage, and at the Lincoln Center’s Mitzi Newhouse Theatre.
Head out and see this one: you’ll get a buzz – literally.
There’s still time to feel the vibes! In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play runs until Sunday, 4 November. More information and bookings at www.bsstc.com.au
Cast: Rebecca Davis, Stuart Halusz, Kingsley Judd, Tariro Mavondo, Jo Morris, Tom Stokes, Alison van Reeken
Creatives – Director: Jeffrey Jay Fowler
Set & Costume Designer: Alicia Clements. Lighting Designer: Lucy Birkinshaw. Sound Designer/Composer: Ash Gibson Greig
After the Show