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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Friday, February 22, 2013

You always remember the first time...

I used to bemoan the fact that the people we critics write for, i.e. you, think about what we have written for about as long as it takes to read it. Perhaps you’re wondering if a show is worth 99 bucks and a few hours of your time. Or perhaps you’re checking to see if I liked something you hated... and if I can be relied upon to give advice that’s useful to you.

But, hey, reviewing’s part of journalism. Utterly disposable. I get that. I don’t mind that. (I’m kinda glad, incidentally, that my first 400-odd reviews were for the Melbourne Times. I don’t think they’ll be on Google reader anytime soon!)

A great majority of the people who do remember you want to knee-cap you. Mostly because they can’t read... and think you called their mum trailer trash. [D’oh!] But there’s a very special group of people who will remember you for the rest of their sentient lives. Prima ballerinas in London and Leningrad who can quote 25 year-old reviews verbatim cos you were the first... when they were in the back row of the corps de ballet or debuting or whatever. And you wrote that they deserved a big shiny star on their dressing room door. (Rachael Beck quoted that line back to me recently from a 1987 review! Bless.)

After last night’s performance of Love Me Tender (Mutation Theatre, Theatre Works) Sarah Ogden told me I’d reviewed her pro debut, in The Secret Garden, when she was 11. Actually, she had me worried. She said the review looked like I wasn’t sure if it was actually her I was praising. (Three tweens were alternating in the key juvie role and PR folks rarely tell you who’s ‘on’ in a show that night. Grr!) But I looked up what I’d written. It looks mercifully unambiguous. I wrote:

But the real find is Sarah Ogden, who alternates in the role of Mary with Samantha and Jaclyn Fiddes. In addition to being a very passable actor, Ogden handles the huge range of her singing part with skill and ease. She fairly belts out her end of ‘Wick’, a duet with Dickon.
Sarah’s comment prompted Kirsten von Bibra to tell me that I’d reviewed one of her very first shows as director. The Wood Box she said. Now, given the vagaries of memory, it’s often easier for me to remember twenty years ago than twenty minutes ago. Primacy and recency and all that jazz. And The Wood Box was December 1989, when I’d only written 200-odd reviews. (I’ve written 20 times that number now.)

But it’s an easy one for me for other reasons. One of the debutantes in that play was a promising 20 year-old uni student by the name of Cate Blanchett. (Verdict: not bad. “Great vocal control” and “a fine voice” apparently! I do remember liking Caroline Lee better though. Heh!)

I had some words of praise for Kirsten’s direction in there as well. (Turns out it was just one. Specifically: ‘beautifully’.) (And that reminds me of a night I was shirt-fronted by a bloke whose show I had dismissed in two words. I’m wincing as I type this. They were “Pretty naff.” Yowza!)

So, yes, von Bibra had fond memories of that review, almost half a lifetime ago. Fond, but maybe not all that vivid. I was sure that my Wood Box review was the one in which I wrote about my mother’s menopause. And in the spirit of over-sharing I paraphrased the story, mostly for Sarah’s benefit. But Kirsten had no recollection of that bit. And I wondered if, after all these years, it was a false memory of mine.

Into the archives, Batman.

I found my TMT reviews from 1989. (Back in the day, I used to do ‘clippings’ as well as keeping a copy of what I’d written -- on a Hewlett Packard mainframe -- and faxed in.)

Here are the first two paragraphs of my review of The Wood Box, as printed.

When her first-born son made his journey to Europe, her soul went with him. Her thoughts were drawn to him like oceans drawn to a distant moon. She was distracted; her life suspended. My brother and I looked on, helpless.

Even the tides of her fertility ceased. “At last,” she thought, “menopause.” She was wrong. When her son returned, so too did the ebb and flow she had endured for 40 years, her heart came out of hibernation.
Then I mention the play! Ahem! (In my defence, my little story was really quite relevant to the content and style of the play.)

I don’t know about you, but I can’t seem to recall the last time I read a review in which the menstrual cycle of the critic’s mother was mentioned...

The only consolation is that neither can Kirsten von Bibra... proving that you do always remember the first time. But not always that well.

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