by Laura Ferguson
There is a tangible air of salacious tension sitting among us. How will it be done? How will they portray the girls’ relationship? question breathless whispers around me. I am curious, too. Looking at the stage, the two leads Cathy-Ellen Paul (Pauline Parker) and Michelle Keating (Juliet Hulme) sit waiting for the auditorium doors to close and the play to being in earnest. Studying these two, the characters are already three-dimensional and exacting. Paul plays Pauline praying fervently to her and Juliet’s invented gods, in which she devoutly believes and worships. Keating sits petulantly, staring out at us, bored and self-assured.
The lights dim, the fictional character of Bridget (played by Jessica Sutton) appears, claiming her role as the narrator of the play. She has been inserted as the housekeeper at the Hulme house. Her addition is well-constructed as she gives us insight into her personal account of what she believes the girls were up to prior to the murder. Sutton executes the role with fortitude and carries herself brilliantly. The disgust of Pauline and Juliet’s impious nature plain on her face, but manages to bring forth a softer side when she, too, falls to Juliet’s manipulations.
Forster clearly uses the character of Bridget as an insight to her own take on the story. O’Malley is prudish and highly uncomfortable with the homosexuality the girls display. However, the script has left the characters’ assumed lesbianism up for interpretation. The director, Helen Mackenzie, has decided to display it as a more prevalent part of Pauline and Juliet’s fantasy life than other tellings.
I like the way Mackenzie has portrayed this. Alongside Mackenzie’s direction, Paul and Keating play the moments of sexual tension well, but usually as a part of their characters’ play-acting. I found this very interesting and read the play as both characters being highly motivated by their intellectual connection, but not necessarily a physical one. Paul’s Pauline in particular, showing intense devotion to Keating’s Juliet. The latter, though, loving the attention, she fixates on Pauline’s dedication to her, narcissism demanding the devotion continue.
I love the evolution of Paul’s character. Mackenzie decides to use Pauline’s hair as a metaphor for the character’s assimilation into Juliet’s life, and Juliet’s manipulation of Pauline’s will. Paul starts out in stiff braids, structured and conservative. Over the course of the play, though, Keating takes out Paul’s braids to mimic hers, long and flowing over her shoulders. As we move closer to the murder, these little touches to show how Pauline’s allegiance is always to Juliet are important and fascinating to watch.
While Paul, Keating and the script work well to describe the characters’ fantasy world to the audience, I did wish to see a little more of it reflected in the set. Penny Lawrence’s vision for the set design appears to have centred around being a stark contrast to Pauline and Juliet’s fantasy life. This works to ground us, especially when the more horrific elements of the story unfold. While, I do believe the play is seen from the eyes of Sutton’s conformist Bridget, a touch of dreamy lighting and softer scenery for the fantasy sequences would have helped us understand the motivations of the characters even more. Touches like this would have been fabulous alongside lighting designer, Don Blackmore’s decision to turn them red and blue when the characters’ games turn sinister.
Now, we have come to it, and I feel shame at the part of me that was looking forward to this. The murder. Or ‘moider’ as the girls callously term it. The audience is dead quiet and there is a creeping dread running through us. I lean away from the scene as I know what’s coming. It is dark, twisted. Evil. There is no sensationalism, for which I am very glad. However, I do feel ill. A roiling, heated pit sits in my stomach. I’m glad for intermission so I can grab a glass of water.
Settling back for the second half, we’ve come to the police and the psychiatrists and the courtroom. The way the more peripheral characters play their parts is heart-wrenching. A favourite moment is watching the way Grant Beban acts as Herbert Rieper, Pauline’s father. His grief and shock are so real, I clutch tearfully at my heart. Beban does this perfectly, and in the very best way is hard to watch and impossible to look away.
Daughters of Heaven shows us the trial, the girls being sentenced and sent to different prisons. Keating’s reaction at being torn from Paul is incredible. She is haunting and desperate, screaming and resisting all efforts to remove her. Paul stands struck with hopelessness, but I would have liked to see more reaction from their ultimate fear coming true: being torn apart.
Daughters of Heaven gives us a wonderful performance and I leave feeling an intense quiet. I am taut and introspective. Paul and Keating’s faces are etched into my mind. Paul has the sparkling hope of salvation in her eye, Keating an arrogant disdain. The characters were beautifully rendered even when their actions were ugly and perverse. Daughters of Heaven brings Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme back down to earth. I will now forever think of the two girls in these terms: they may be daughters of heaven, but they were the creators of their own hell.
Daughters of Heaven plays at the Gryphon Theatre from 17-27th of May. You can find tickets here.