This collaboration between Emma Valente and Kate Davis, the experimental feminist directors and designers collectively known as The Rabble, and multi-talented writer Alison Croggon, will likely leave audiences divided. Is it a self-indulgent swipe at patriarchal society that is both too obvious and too obscure? Or a nuanced, multi-disciplinary exploration, including through performance art, poetry, history and sound, of human relationships and, in particular, society’s wilful and oppressive misunderstanding of women that has endured for centuries?

My Dearworthy DarlingJennifer Vuletic in My Dearworthy Darling. Photo © David Paterson

For this critic, My Dearworthy Darling is a little of the former but a great deal more of the latter. Its very loose narrative focuses on a woman (Jennifer Vuletic) whose mental illness may in part be due to, but is certainly not helped by, her deteriorating relationships with her partner (Ben Grant) and sister (Natalie Gamsu).

He is crushed by a dehumanising insurance job, leaving him vulnerable and prone to anger, as well as echoing the hard, unsympathetic conservatism of the sister when these two get together. Grant and Gamsu present well defined characters that seem to intentionally border on caricature, while Vuletic’s performance is an intriguing interpretation of an enigmatic woman’s inner world.

This character’s mental fragility and existential quest is expressed in several ways, but most particularly by a harsh, almost constant soundscape, and a blurring with the past through several figures in Medieval religious robes: a Greek chorus of sorts.

Natalie Gamsu in My Dearworthy Darling. Photo © David Paterson

Valente’s soundscape is both compelling and alienating, an ever-changing cacophony of electronic droning, distortion and phone ringing, plus irritating sounds from a couple of the very few props: a vacuum cleaner and an electric toothbrush. There’s occasional respite with natural sounds such as the droning of crickets and, toward the end, the chorus’ Medieval plainchant, through which Vuletic’s powerful solo voice emerges in the play’s sensorially glorious epiphany.

By then, her character has come a long way from seemingly listening to nothing through a glass on the floor. She is transformed from a madwoman with aural hallucinations to a quasi-sainted mystic like Margery Kempe, the 14th-century woman whose autobiographical book is repeatedly quoted by the chorus. Misunderstood and even accused of heresy because of her religious visions and sensing of inexplicable sounds and smells, Kempe created a text that echoes through the centuries, helping the woman at the centre of My Dearworthy Darling find a quiet certainty within herself amid modern society’s madness.

After being metaphorically re-born, the woman all but joins the Medieval chorus. She remains apart, however, a contemporary figure whose transformation is not so much about religion as self-discovery. She is naked, but for a cape that echoes the chorus’ concealing robes, and a headdress that suggests a radiant, saintly halo, but is actually a modern, black construction that appears to be made of microphones.

Jennifer Vuletic in My Dearworthy Darling. Photo © David Paterson

My Dearworthy Darling is dotted with such symbolism that is sometimes too obvious and sometimes wonderfully elusive and provocative. Other examples include the most prominent aspect of the minimalist set: a boulder on which the woman sits, like a curious mutation of Lorelei, the fictional German whose misunderstood life led to her calling sailors to their deaths with her siren song in the afterlife. There’s also the wall of speakers our protagonist discovers behind the set’s gaudy, shimmering curtain. Is it the source of her aural hallucinations or modernity’s alienating cacophony, or both?

This play provokes many questions, some of which probably can never be answered, even after all the animated discussions and private pondering it will give rise to. Whether one exits the theatre thinking My Dearworthy Darling is poetic genius or arty self-indulgence, it’s a play that will probably keep prodding the grey cells long after it fades to black.

Malthouse Theatre’s My Dearworthy Darling is at the Beckett Theatre, Melbourne, until August 18