Spending the entirety of a play on a sparse, dimly lit stage and often alone might prove a daunting task for some actors. Not Catherine McClements. ‘It’s a dream,’ she says of playing Bella Baird, a Yale University creative writing professor and author in Adam Rapp’s small-scale mystery The Sound Inside. ‘It’s a brilliant role that you can pull a lot of stuff out of – there are no limitations.’
McClements has Director Sarah Goodes to thank for introducing her to the play. ‘I’m a real admirer of her work and when she approached me I knew that I was in good hands.’ The pair have worked together before at MTC in 2017 on Three Little Words and McClements knew The Sound Inside was the sort of play that Goodes excels in. ‘It’s where she comes from and what she understands deeply. It’s very mysterious and it’s got magic. I thought this has the potential to release something quite special in the theatre.’
Catherine McClements with Shiv Palekar in The Sound Inside. Photo: Jeff Busby
The play is layered with interwoven stories. Bella, who lives a quiet, solitary life, decides to share her story and intimate secrets with the audience. Then enters Christopher, played by Shiv Palekar, one of her students who shows an interest in getting to know her. They form an unlikely deep friendship and the story segments, delving between their encounters, Bella’s memories and the fictitious world of Christopher’s own novel-in-progress. It is in this layering that the play examines the intricate bonds of storytelling – the connection between the writer, the story and the reader.
McClements equates this to the stage, and the similar connection between ‘the actor, the play and the audience – the beautiful lines that bond us.’ She explains further by quoting Joan Didion, ‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live.’ She interprets this to mean that the creation of a story ‘creates culture, it creates relationships, it creates human contact and understanding.’ And this is what lies at the crux of The Sound Inside. ‘The themes are really about story, and how we create them to connect with each other – how we create stories to come to some understanding of what our life means.’
‘It’s very mysterious and it’s got magic. I thought this has the potential to release something quite special in the theatre.’ – Catherine McClements
And what better way to prepare for a play that is preoccupied with story than to read. ‘We read and read and read,’ McClements says. ‘These characters love reading and so we read a lot of classical American literature and then we’d discuss the book and the themes.’ McClements also tried her hand at a few Yale courses online. ‘I wanted to understand the discussions around literature those professors were having.’ She also wanted to get a sense of the highly confined academic world the characters live in. ‘It feels like they are living in a sort of doll’s house, the way Bella talks about the streets that are all in this little square, it’s a sort of microcosm.’
Catherine McClements in rehearsals for The Sound Inside with Shiv Palekar and Director Sarah Goodes. Photo: Charlie Kinross
This cramped academic world has suppressed Bella’s ability to write. ‘She’s a writer who considers that she’s failed and so she goes into academia.’ The writer’s block she experiences has caused a ‘disjuncture in her soul, and she can’t express who she truly is, because she can’t write,’ says McClements. Bella is orbiting away from the world and it is only through her interaction with Christopher that she is brought back. ‘In many ways, Christopher is the man of her dreams,’ McClements explains. ‘I suppose it’s the depth of what we call love. It’s a meeting of a mind you feel as if you’re able to unlock your own mind through.’ McClements reflects that it’s probably the first time Bella has fallen in love and ‘the pain of it and the joy of it’ is the ultimate experience for her.
Shiv Palekar and Catherine McClements in The Sound Inside. Photo: Jeff Busby
The enveloping and mesmerising combination of Bella and Christopher’s relationship intertwined with stories-within-stories allows the play to stay one step ahead of its audience. It draws them in closer and closer as a curious tension mounts. In fact, Bella gives Christopher a piece of advice in the play that encapsulates Adam Rapp’s technique: ‘If your protagonist is leading you then you’ll likely stay ahead of your reader.’ McClements agrees and observes that Goodes has very much let the play sit in its complexity. ‘The beauty of the play is its mystery and suspense … with constant clues tapping throughout. It’s up for an audience to decide.’
The Sound Inside is on stage until 2 July at Arts Centre Melbourne, Fairfax Studio.
Published on 27 May 2022