Thursday, February 28, 2013

Malthouse Theatre: Hate by Stephen Sewell

“Although the dialogue of this play may appear in some respects naturalistic, the production should never make the mistake of setting it naturalistally.”

So writes Stephen Sewell in the Currency Press edition of Hate, published to coincide with the premiere production in 1988.

I guess the most important point made in my review of Marion Potts’ new production -- an edited version of which is published in today’s Australian -- is that this is not a play about a family, it’s a play about a nation. What Sewell did in Hate was show us what a family would look like if it behaved like a fanatical, dry, right-wing political party led by an ambitious and amoral bully.

John for PM, William Zappa in Hate (Photograph: Jeff Busby)

So, there’s no point criticising the writer for creating ciphers, or glove puppets. Cos, derr, that’s what they’re supposed to be. But it might have been better if Potts had cranked up the camp dial a bit, made William Zappa’s character a bit more like Richard III. Or at least Francis Urquhart. And, well, as much as I disliked Ben Geurens as Michael Gleason, I could at least see the point of his character, cue ‘The End’ by The Doors.

Anyway, here’s the director’s cut of my review.

While most political playwrights are content to examine society’s entrails and tell us what went wrong, and who to blame, Stephen Sewell has an unerring knack of forecasting the ugliest of futures. And he’s right more often than the Bureau of Meteorology. Actually, he’s right more often than Barry O Jones.

He’s predicted recessions to within a year (The Blind Giant is Dancing), the suspension of habeas corpus in the West post-9/11 (Myth, Propaganda and Disaster in Nazi Germany and Contemporary America) and the death of ‘wet’ politics (pretty much from his first play The Father We Loved on a Beach by the Sea on). To date, the most serious complaint that can be levelled at Sewell is that his prophecies haven’t actually helped avert any of those imagined outcomes.

After the great early “personal is political” plays -- Traitors (1979) through to Dreams In An Empty City (1986) -- Hate is an oddity. A transitional play at the very least. Co-commissioned by the Australian Bicentennial Authority, and premiered at the end of 1988, Hate is a discordant chamber piece in which the political gets very personal indeed.

Not only does Sewell imagine a political climate in which “hate is the only constructive emotion,” he conjures up a gruesome nuclear family driven by the same imperative. The patriarch, John Gleason (William Zappa), is a businessman and four decade politician hell-bent on splitting his conservative coalition -- currently in opposition -- to have a tilt at the Prime Ministership. But his greatest obstacle might prove to be his own family.

The play is grand guignol; superheated, lithe and blackly funny. Or, at least, it can be. Marion Potts’ new production is overly reverent and seals the story in time. It plays out as an inexorable (and sporadically leaden) Joh-for-PM period piece. There’s little of the mercurial lightness and zing that Neil Armfield brought to the debut Belvoir/Playbox production.

As Raymond, the middle child who fancies himself the obvious successor, Grant Piro plays the stock-broking dandy, big on threats but small on menace. Ben Geurens looks like he’s modelled his performance as younger son Michael on Jim Morrison, wrapped up in himself and his own limbs.

Ben Geurens and Sara Wiseman in Hate (Photograph: Jeff Busby)

Celia, Brünnhilde to her father’s Wotan, is the most complex and intriguing character in the play, and Sara Wiseman’s high-torque performance is far and away the best of the ensemble. There’s a nuance in her acting that’s lacking from the rest of the production.

Hate by Stephen Sewell. Directed by Marion Potts. Set and costume design by Dayna Morrissey. Lighting design by Paul Jackson. Sound design by Russell Goldsmith. A Malthouse Theatre production. Merlyn Theatre until March 8, 2013.

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