The 1990’s are having a moment right now and the resurgence has extended to theatre. Hotel Sorrento is a play by Hannie Rayson that was first published in 1990 and made into a film in 1995. HIT Productions first presented the play in 1998, and their adaptation at HOTA last night marked the 20th anniversary of that performance.
Aside from the spotlight on the 90s, why resurrect a nearly 30 year old Australian play and what relevance does it have in modern Australia?
Hotel Sorrento is set in the seaside town of Sorrento on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula at the childhood home of sisters Hilary, Pippa and Meg Moynihan. Hilary still lives in the house with their father Wal, and her son Troy while Pippa lives in New York and Meg in London. The drama unfolds as the sisters are reunited when Pippa is visiting from New York, and Meg arrives from London with her husband to escape the pressures in the lead up to the announcement of the Booker Prize for which her semi-autobiographical book ‘Melancholy’ has been shortlisted.
The book’s thinly veiled account of the family’s painful past raises conflict within the family, but the book also awakens Marge, who has a weekender in Sorrento she frequently visits, to view the town in a new light. Marge’s friend Dick, a journalist, is far more cynical.
While the element of ‘cultural cringe’ has lessened over the last 20 years, the overarching relevance of the story today relates to family conflict and criticism of Australian society. Meg and her husband refer to Australia as “ordinary”, “empty”, and “tawdry”, with disregard for art and artists, and no passion unless it’s for making money and sport. Pippa is frustrated by Australians lack of interest in self improvement and personal development. Australians have developed a greater interest and acceptance of art, and have certainly embraced American-style personal development in the intervening years since the play was first written. However, Australia has not had a recession in that time either, and our painless existence has further fuelled complacency. We don’t have to be visionary when we can dig rocks out of the ground to keep us wealthy. Have we really moved away from being ordinary?
Tensions mount slowly towards the crescendo in this play, and as such, the performances needed to be riveting in order to hold the audiences’ interest. Attention spans aren’t what they were 20 years ago and this is a slow moving play. Unfortunately, the actors weren’t quite up to the task. It felt at times like the they were just reading their lines during their auditions. As the play moves toward discussing loyalty, the plot twist that reveals how they ended up where they are ended up feeling unsatisfying.
Placing the jetty at the centre of the stage was a surprisingly effective prop. Aside from helping create a rule of threes aesthetic onstage, it was a constant yet simple reminder of the beachside location. It also served as an ominous presence, representing the tragedy behind so much of the characters’ pain.
Hotel Sorrento is still a great story of the importance of family and belonging, alongside family dysfunction and mixed feelings about home. Keeping the play firmly set in the 90s with cues such as written letters and a noticeable lack of mobile phones, gave context to difference in attitudes of that time compared to contemporary Australia. Perhaps setting Hotel Sorrento in contemporary times would give the play more relevance in the lead up to it’s 30th anniversary.