Menu Sian Prior

Writer, Broadcaster, Singer, MC & Teacher

Culture Club reviews September 12th [September 14]

I’ve been to see three new ‘Australian’ plays in the last month. Although two of them are loosely based on real events they were all very different and to be honest, with one of them, it’s a bit doubtful whether it can actually be called an Australian play.

The first play is ‘Savages’, by Melbourne playwright Patricia Cornelius, which was on at 45 Downstairs in Flinders Lane. It was one of the best new plays I’ve seen in a long time – totally exhilarating.

Patricia Cornelius may not be a household name but in fact she has won many awards for her plays, including two AWGIE awards and several Premier’s Literary awards. She’s a political playwright in the broadest sense. She was a founding member of the Melbourne Workers Theatre and she is deeply interested in power; who gets to wield it, and to what end. The director of this new show, Susie Dee, is someone Cornelius has worked with quite a bit in the past, and you can see that they have a very similar vision of what makes good theatre.

This new play is also about power, although not in any simplistic way. Patricia Cornelius has taken as her jumping off point the awful true story of the death of Australian woman Diane Brimble on board a cruise ship in gruesome circumstances (there were date rape drugs involved), a story that was all over the local media a few years ago. The playwright has backtracked to ask – how could a situation like that come to be?

She has created four fictional male characters, a bunch of mates who go on a cruise trip together, each of them looking for some kind of escape from their everyday lives and also, perhaps, for some kind of reward for enduring their own lives. And although the story ends before the men have even approached the imagined female character, by the end of the play you have an intimate understanding of how a situation like that could have come to pass, and perhaps even some empathy for the four men.

The writing in this play is a combination of the highly poetic and the profoundly colloquial. At times it’s like listening to a choir, except that they’re speaking rather than singing. At times there are rhymes and repetition, sometimes the characters speak in unison, and it’s always writing with great rhythm. At times the performances are quite naturalistic, and at other times they’re highly choreographed, almost like physical theatre.

Cornelius has taken a forensic approach to the study of masculinity, exploring the kind of upbringings and attitudes and cultural values that might lead a group of men to think it’s okay to consider ‘date- raping’ a woman. One description of this play that I read said it was about bereft men, men who feel like they haven’t had their due. Cornelius also uses the word stifled in the program notes. These four men feel as if they’ve been ‘dudded’ in their lives – with love, with their marriages, parenting, work, their dreams – and someone has to be held to account.

The changing dynamics between the four very different characters are fascinating. One of them is called Runt and that’s exactly what he is, the runt of the pack, the one who is bullied and blamed. At times this play reminded me of the novel ‘Lord of the Flies’, in the way that brutal pack mentality is played out. ‘Wake in Fright’ also came to mind, as did and Kate Grenville’s novel ‘Dark Places’, in terms of adding to your understanding of how men can do unimaginable things to women.

The set design is simple but effective; a raked wooden stage that looks a bit like the deck of a cruise ship, with a tiny hole in the ground which is the cramped cabin the men have to share. There is also great sound design by Kelly Ryall, and the ensemble cast of four actors are all very strong; like a well-oiled machine when they’re working together on the stage.

‘Savages’ was simply brilliant and if it has a return season (as I hope it will soon) you should get down there to see it.

The second so-called Australian play I’ve been to see is ‘The Cherry Orchard’, billed as being ‘by Simon Stone after Anton Chekhov’ . This is an MTC production on at Southbank Theatre until September 25th.

I really enjoyed this production and had a great night at the theatre, but I do think it was a bit cheeky of Simon Stone to claim authorship of this famous early twentieth century play by Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, to be honest. It’s an adaptation, sure, or perhaps a free translation, but when you retain the main characters, the plot, and much of the dialogue, I don’t think you can claim ownership of someone else’s play.

Simon Stone has also directed this production and he has updated the setting to – well we’re not quite sure where but it could be modern day Russia, or it could be outer suburban Australia. There’s a McMansion with a big backyard that people sit around in, and a blow-up plastic pool, but the story is essentially the same: a wealthy but dissolute family have run through all their money and are going to have to sell off the family estate, including their beloved cherry orchard, to pay off their debts. And there’s a local businessman (a nouveau riche bloke we’d say in Australia) who wants to help them out, to find a way for them to keep the orchard, but because they can’t actually face the reality of what’s happening to their family, they ignore his offers until its too late.

The good news is that this new production has retained the sweet, sly, sympathetic humour of Chekhov. There are so many moments when you’re not sure whether you want to laugh or cry, because the characters are so nutty and so vulnerable. And the cast is incredibly strong. Toby Truslove is a stand out. He plays Trofimov, the eternal student and the butt of everyone’s jokes, but also a philosopher and idealist. He’s the unrequited lover who’s always making up really bad love songs to Dunyasha, the girl who will never love him in return, and it’s a beautiful, funny performance. And Rob Menzies is wonderful as Gayev, the hopeless brother who in this production keeps retreating to his toy train set to avoid the reality of his crumbling world.

It’s interesting how the themes of this play just keep resonating, long after the world that it originally portrayed has disappeared. It was all about the end of the aristocracy in pre-Revolutionary Russia, the people who the communists swept away, but the human behaviour that the play examines remains the same: people who are unwilling to accept and adapt to change, people who feel they’re entitled to privilege, people seduced by the idea of wealth and power.

The Cherry Orchard’ – ‘by Simon Stone after Anton Chekhov’ – is on at Southbank Theatre until September 25th.

And finally I’ve been to see ‘Rupert’, the new play about Rupert Murdoch by one of Australia’s most successful playwrights, David Williamson, which is on at the Arts Centre until 28th September.

Let me say straight up, I did NOT enjoy this play. Those were three of the longest hours I’ve spent in the theatre. But I know plenty of people will disagree with me about this because there was tons of laughter in the theatre and Williamson has a rock solid fan base. He’s written many of Australia’s most successful plays and screenplays, including Don’s Party, The Removalists, The Club, Gallipolli, and The Year of Living Dangerously. But I don’t think ‘Rupert’ will go down in history as one of his finest.

It starts promisingly when Rupert comes on stage with his mobile phone and starts bossing the audience around and sending off bragging tweets. Immediately you believe in the actor, Sean O’Shea, who is playing the older Rupert in this production. Rupert tells us that this is HIS version of events, that he’s telling his own story, the whole story, of the ‘real’ Rupert. Gradually we’re introduced to some of the key characters including Rupert’s mother Dame Elizabeth Murdoch, his three wives, his business allies and competitors, and eventually his children. So most members of the cast are required to play many different characters, except for Guy Edmonds who plays young(er) Rupert. Often the two Ruperts are on stage together and sometimes they are in dialogue with each other. But this huge cast of characters is part of the problem for me; Williamson has tried to tell us too much about Murdoch’s life and times, and has ended up not really telling us anything we didn’t already know.

There’s a great book I use in teaching creative writing called ‘The Situation and the Story’ by Vivian Gornick which argues that it’s not enough just to tell people about a ‘situation’; to create a really fine piece of writing you have to be very clear about the ‘story’ that you’re telling from within that situation. And for me, this is where ‘Rupert’ the play falls down. There are so many potentially interesting stories to explore in the life of this powerful man; the moral cost of a naked appetite for power; the process of political corruption that can take place when newspaper proprietors get pally with politicians; the personal cost of putting business before everything else. There is definitely room for a creative critique of this man whose business practices have had such a profound impact on so many lives. But it seems as if Williamson hasn’t decided what story he wants to tell us so he had ended up trying to do it all but doing none of it well.

Instead we get a lot of character impersonations, very briefly sketched, and lots of one-liners that depend on the audience being in the know about the details of Murdoch’s personal life and infamous career. There are lots of rapid costume changes and quirky props but in the second half of the play in particular the playwright has tried to cram so much history into the plot it just about busts apart from the pressure.

As I said, Sean O’Shea is great as the older Rupert, but I wasn’t convinced by Guy Edmonds as the younger Rupert. There is a lot of hamming it up for the audience, and a lot of physical comedy just for the sake of a quick gag, which I think the director should have kept a tighter rein on. The rest of the cast are total troupers and seem to be having a lot of fun but at moments it was like watching a university revue.

‘Rupert’ is on at the Arts Centre until 28th September.

Don’t forget the Melbourne Fringe Festival starts next week on the 18th – hope you can get out and see some fresh Melbourne talent treading the boards.

And finally, a special mention for the return season of the Victorian Trade Union Choir production ‘I’ll Be There’ at La Mama Theatre at the end of this month. I saw it last year at Trades Hall and though i confess to being totally biased (i founded the choir) it’s totally delightful.