Menu Sian Prior

Writer, Broadcaster, Singer, MC & Teacher

774 Drive Culture Club – Theatre Reviews [February 24]

I’ve been to see three plays in the last fortnight but I’d have to say the most interesting theatre around at the moment is the K Rudd vs J Gillard Show. Is it a tragedy or is it a comedy?

Or is it a sport?

You might remember a sport called farnarkling which was invented by comedian John Clarke several decades ago. He’d give fake reports on the results of farnarkling games and it was entirely bewildering – you couldn’t really understand the rules, or how the scoring worked, or how many players there were, or how they got their injuries – or even why anyone would bother playing this game. It seems to me the Labor Leadership Game is a bit like farnarkling to most of us. You hear the commentators talking endlessly about it and it seems so irrelevant to your daily life and you just shake your head and wonder why anyone would bother playing.

But there are some parallels between what’s happening inside Labor and some of the plays I’ve seen this week.

1) ‘Tribes’ is an MTC production, a newish work by English playwright Nina Raine, and it’s beautifully directed by Julian Meyrick.

It’s a play about an English family – a tribe – who seem to be at war with each other – sounding familiar? Every conversation involves multiple layers of insults and innuendos, endless blaming and criticizing.

Mother Beth is a writer and father Christopher is an academic who seems terminally disappointed with his three adult children (two boys and a girl), all of whom are still living at home and one of whom, Billy, is deaf. Christopher believes ‘everyone should be laughed at’ and he is the master of the vicious put-down.

This is what many critics would describe as a ‘brave’ play because it goes where few would dare to tread. It takes a long hard look at the idea of disability, and how people treat those who are differently abled. It’s willing to be critical of the deaf signing community, a ‘tribe’ that one character describes as gossipy and insular. It treats mental illness with a casualness that almost makes it seem normal. And it shows us that we can behave most cruelly towards the people we love the most – the people with whom we have most in common.

The question at the centre of the play is – where do we belong? Which tribe should we identify with? Our family? Even if our family seems totally dysfunctional, even if they let us down? Or should we try to find another tribe to belong to – in which case, will the other tribe love us as much as our family will? And what concessions do we have to make to earn our place in the tribe?

The acting in this production is wonderful, especially Alison Bell who plays Sylvia, a young woman who is going deaf, and who people might know from the ABC comedy series ‘Laid’, and David Paterson who plays Daniel, a young man who in the end seems even more disabled than his deaf brother.

At times I thought Brian Lipson, who plays the father, was a little too shouty. Everything was in top gear, which left him nowhere to go when the most crucial dramatic moments came along. But overall this production is highly recommended. It’s exhilarating, illuminating and exhausting to watch. Warning – there is plenty of strong language from the very first moments.

‘Tribes’ is on at the MTC in Southbank until March 14th. The performances on Saturday 25th February at 4pm and Monday 5th March at 6.30pm are captioned for the deaf community.

2) The second production I saw is a play called ‘Good People’ by American playwright David Lindsay-Abaire, a Red Stitch Actors Theatre production. As many would know, this is a small theatre ensemble based in St Kilda which has been punching above its weight for many years, doing great work on tiny budgets.

‘Good People’ is also about tribalism and disability, and about class – yes folks, it does still exist. The play is set in Boston, Massachusetts – working-class South Boston, or ‘Southie’ – where people struggle to pay their rent and spend their Saturday nights playing bingo, hoping for a win so they CAN pay their rent. Everyone’s name has an ‘ee’ at the end of it in these parts – Margie, Mikey, Dottie, Jeanie, Stevie – which is kind of a way of saying, everyone’s equal, and everyone’s also equally diminished by their hard lives.

Margie is a single mother of an adult daughter with a disability, and at the beginning of the play she loses her job at the check out counter. She may also be about to lose her home, because she can’t pay the rent. Margie meets up with an old flame, a doctor she calls Mikey, who escaped his working class roots and ‘made good’. Mikey has come back to town with a beautiful wife and a daughter in tow. Mikey is what Margie calls ‘good people’ – a decent bloke – part of Margie’s tribe, in spite of his success – or is he?

The drama revolves around what Margie hopes Mikey can do to help her out, what she knows about Mikey’s past, and who she’s prepared to reveal it to. I don’t want to give any more away or I’ll spoil it but there is a really satisfying dramatic end to this play. The acting from ensemble cast of six is excellent. It’s hard to single anyone out but do keep an eye out for Olga Makeeva, a Russian-Australian actress who plays Dottie (who is Dottie by name and dotty by nature) and who has brilliant comic timing.

There’s a simple, ingenious set design by Peter Mumford for this tiny, intimate theatre, and the direction by Kaarin Fairfax is spot on.

‘Good People’ is a great night out. It’s on until March 3rd.

3) ‘The Wild Duck’ is a production that began life in Sydney’s Belvoir Theatre and is now having a season at the Malthouse Theatre. Many people would have heard of or seen the original Henrik Ibsen play of the same name (you might have studied it at school perhaps) but writer and director Simon Stone has taken the original play, pulled it apart, and put it back together again, setting it in contemporary times and using colloquial Australian language. (Simon is also the new Artistic Director of Belvoir Theatre.)

The characters have the same names ( though I think they’re more likeable in this version than in Ibsen’s) and the plot is very similar: a young man called Gregers returns to his father Werle’s house supposedly to attend his father’s wedding to a much younger woman, but in fact he’s come to wreak revenge for his mother’s suicide by exposing some family secrets.
He re-establishes contact with his old friend Hjalmar and Hjalmar’s beloved wife and daughter, but when Gregers finally reveals some home truths to Hjalmar, tragedy becomes inevitable.

This is a GREAT production. I was on the edge of my seat the whole evening. Simon Stone has done a really interesting thing, he’s put the actors very clearly behind the so-called ‘fourth wall’ – in this instance, he’s put glass windows between the actors and the audience, and then miked the actors – so we’re watching them as if we’re peering through someone’s living room window, like voyeurs.

And the mikes ensure that every tiny sound or breath the performers make can he heard. There’s none of that loud declamatory style that most stage actors have to use to get their lines across, it’s very, very subtle. It’s odd to be so separate visually and yet so close aurally. You imagine it might make us feels distanced from the characters but actually they remain almost unbearably real and close.

The acting is superb from a very even cast. John Gaden is a veteran of Australian theatre who plays the father Werle. Ewan Leslie plays Hjalmar. He’s the ’it’ boy of Australian theatre at the moment, an incredibly talented stage actor. And Hjalmar’s teenage daughter is played by Eloise Mignon. She’s actually in her mid 20’s but is entirely convincing as a fifteen year old school girl.

Go and see it, if you can get a ticket. ‘The Wild Duck is on until March 17th at the Malthouse Theatre in Southbank.