Alexi Kaye Campbell’s Apologia: saving us from the rampant stupidity of religion on the one hand and vacuous consumerism on the other. Or not.
Kristin Miller’s kids -- one around forty, t’other a little under -- are maintaining their rage against the crusading, red-ragger, firebrand woman that bore them. And bully for them!
Patrick Brammall and Robyn Nevin in Apologia (Photo: Jeff Busby)
But what I find impossible to swallow is that they’re genuinely appalled -- newly appalled, appalled all over again -- when mummy dearest fails to mention either of them in her newly published memoir.
I think I can speak of this experience with some authority! My sister-in-law and a stray half-brother get chapters to themselves in my father’s memoir. But I’m the Lynn Redgrave of my family, only scoring an actual mention for dissing the old man in a eulogy. But did the gaping hole in my father’s yarn trigger an existential crisis? Again, hell no! Just a roll of the eyes. Or, more accurately, just another roll of the eyes.
Playwright Alexi Kaye Campbell admits his own mother is nothing like Kristin Miller. Actually, I don’t think Kaye Campbell’s creation is much like any human being. His portrait of a feminist radical and brilliant art historian is weirdly 2D and unconvincing. Where do I begin?
* The author and intellectual who inexplicably (and unforgivably) refers to the word ‘fucking’ as an adjective;
* The grown-up who can snap at Trudi in the first scene “Please don’t tell me what I mean” then blithely say to her younger son’s GF in the second act: “Surely you can’t mean that.”
* The atheist who calls her sons Simon and Peter (!!) and who specialises in religious art of the Italian Renaissance;
* The humanist non-believer who manages to give a lecture on punishment and reward without using the words paradise, heaven or hell yet still refers to her work as her ‘calling’ and her ‘vocation’. [Okay, that last bit made her a little bit interesting, but the earlier qualities [sic] just made her less believable.]
There are quite a few more holes in Kaye Campbell’s portrait than there are holes in the tribal mask that Kristin is presented with by her eldest son Peter and his fiancée Trudi. (Q. What’s a mask with only one hole? A. A bell.) [I’ve been asked not to attribute this riddle! But I’ll only take provisional credit for it until the angel outs herself.] [D’oh!]
Nevertheless... nevertheless... Robin Nevin almost pulls the contradictions off. Almost. In my review in today’s Australian, on-line here, I argue that director Jennifer Flowers concentrates on making sense of the to-and-fro powerplay between the characters, especially mother and (eldest) son. I found these ‘beats’ -- the rare occasions that one character catches the attention of another -- most interesting. (Prada did not. She left at half time.)
There are a couple of those beats in quick succession in the first scene. Kristin likens Trudi, Peter’s spunky Christian fiancée, to a peach tree. Peter -- for once -- is genuinely surprised by his mother. A moment later, he says to Kristin” “I read your book.” She turns, expectant in spite of herself, with an “Oh?”
But an enormous percentage of the script is devoted to staccato monologues rather than actual dialogue. The family members, in particular, talk in crossfire. No-one listens. No-one, apparently, wants to be heard. And that makes it a damn hard text to make work. And this production, as of Wednesday night, hasn’t quite made that part work.
But more in the official review...
Playwright Alexi Kaye Campbell imagined Vanessa Redgrave in the lead role of his play Apologia when he cast it in his mind. “I thought about strong women of that generation who really had to be... ground-breakers and pioneers; how difficult that had to have been.”
Like Redgrave, Kaye Campbell’s fictional heroine Kristin Miller is a life-long crusader and only partly reformed communist. As a student at Cambridge, Kristin was a part of the massive anti-war protest in Grosvenor Square that Redgrave and Tariq Ali led in March 1968, the one that ended in mounted police charges and riot.
Tariq Ali and Vanessa “Red Rave”, Grosvenor Square March 1968
A brilliant and pioneering art historian the sixtysomething Miller might be, but she was and is -- according to her sons -- a dreadful mother. The last straw for them is that neither is mentioned in her newly published memoir... something Redgrave’s kid sister could have related to. [Lynn’s birth didn’t rate a mention in Sir Michael’s diary.]
Younger son Simon (Patrick Brammall) puts it bluntly: “everything we are and everything we do is a response against you.” Kaye Campbell asks us to believe that Simon, in his late thirties, has never recovered from his mother having had a proverbial room of her own.
Out of tired habit, Miller urges her smug older son Peter (Ian Bliss), a banker, to change careers so that she can be proud to call him her son again. He arrives at her home in the English countryside with his new fiancée Trudi in tow. She’s young, pretty, American... and Christian!
The non-believing matriarch is appalled. “All of a sudden the idea of him keeping the whole of sub-Saharan Africa in crippling debt doesn’t seem quite as bad a proposition.”
Miller patronises the well-meaning but callow Trudi (Laura Gordon) cruelly. Simon’s soap-star girlfriend Claire (Helen Christinson) doesn’t fare much better. Claire, at least, gives as good as she gets.
The family, plus Miller’s beloved old friend Hugh (an utterly delightful Ron Falk), gather to celebrate Kristin’s birthday. The only listening that takes place in the course of the evening, and morning after, is critical scrutiny: research for future attacks.
Miller and her sons say what they have to say and don’t seem to care all that much if they’re heard. That makes Kaye Campbell’s script something of a challenge to perform. It needs to be conducted like a vocal score.
Director Jennifer Flowers has concentrated on the emotional transitions and powerplay, but her success here is at the expense of overall timing. Instead of a fugue, the individual voices are an overlapping and tin-eared cacophony. And the hard-won cracking of Kristin’s mask, her carapace of petrified idealism, seems strained and artificial.
Apologia by Alexi Kaye Campbell. Directed by Jennifer Flowers. Set design by Shaun Gurton. Lighting design by Nigel Levings. Melbourne Theatre Company. Fairfax Studio, the Arts Centre, until April 9.