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July 01st 2012 print

Michael Connor

Theatrical Haze

Too nice, too late

Andrew Bolt said go; the Left said don’t go. The matinee performance of the Melbourne Theatre Company’s production of The Heretic had lots of spare seats. The audience seemed the usual collection of the more-than-elderly subscribers. I circulated. “Have you read this morning’s Age?” a man was asking his friends. I kept moving. Another group (more Age readers?) was discussing gay marriage. I wandered on. The most animated conversation I found was being played out between two young women. They were discussing ways to redirect voicemail messages. This wasn’t the audience for political theatre, this wasn’t the place for political theatre. The signs outside auditoriums get longer and longer. Today’s warned of strobe lighting, strong language, theatrical haze, herbal cigarettes and adult themes. It seemed like just another day at the MTC.

The Heretic, by Richard Bean, is an English play about climate scepticism. It is a good argument against subsidised theatre. The London premiere was in February 2011 and the play, exhumed onstage in Melbourne in May 2012, was at least twelve months dead. So much has happened since its first Royal Court production. If Australian audiences had seen this before the Gillard government carbon tax had been passed it could have been a smashing success. Subsidised theatres bore us to death with commissioned plays that hopelessly remake classic theatre in eighty- or ninety-minute pre-digested, vacuum-packed servings that are soggy and leaky like made-this-morning sandwiches. Amid the outpouring of public money to the subsidised theatres not one of them commissioned a climate sceptic play.

Some angry Australian commentators complained about this staging of The Heretic and attacked the MTC for only doing so to attract publicity and audiences. If only that was how they operate. Had an Australian play supportive of climate sceptics gone onstage here in February 2011 it would have made theatrical history. Instead we get a watery production of this English play. It’s a theatrically sound piece, part climate lecture, part comedy, part thriller. The climate sceptic bits could seem to have just been added on. Once it was lively political theatre but the snap has gone. The direction was soggy and the main casting was a mistake, but apart from that it wasn’t bad.

The players threw us jokes and witticisms that didn’t really get us laughing, for the direction had taken a wrong turn. Director Matt Scholten is probably not a sceptic for he did not bring to the play the passion it deserved. He took a hard-edged black comedy and turned it into what often felt like a British sitcom rerun.

Part of the problem was in casting Noni Hazlehurst in the lead role as scientist Dr Diane Cassell. In the morning, before I saw the play, there was a woman coming towards me along the aircraft aisle as passengers boarded. She was thin, her hair had been trimmed with a bread knife and she had the grim look of certain female academics. As she turned into the seats in front of me she smiled. My heart froze. That was Dr Diane Cassell. Noni Hazlehurst was typically delightful. She is big, looks great and comforting and threw off her witty lines with precision. She was, she is, so nice. Her niceness defused, negated the shards of glass she was throwing about and they bounced off their intended victims. The Royal Court production cast angular-featured Juliet Stevenson—you can see why she would have been ideal casting.

Then there was Shaun Goss, who twitched, shambled and rambled his way through the part of a climate-crazed green student. At times he lurched into a Some Mothers Do ’Ave ’Em performance and negated the cold looniness of this dangerous self-harming individual. This is a middle-class kid, a climate zealot who brained his father with a Le Creuset casserole and served a prison sentence. The notice at the door warned us of adult themes and theatrical haze—the director hosed us with haze and lost the adult themes. Professor Kevin Maloney was played by Andrew McFarlane as a typical MTC male. They are so weak and fragile you wonder how they can cross the stage without the support of a good woman to hold them up. It has been a long time since a real male has been portrayed on an MTC stage. The professor is crooked and opportunist; the weak male routine softens the writer’s barbs. Daughter Phoebe (Anna Samson) was a well-fed anorexic; security man and extreme green Geoff Tordoff (Lyall Brooks) emphasised the buffoon and downplayed the threat.

At Dr Cassell’s university we are told that her colleagues have stopped speaking to her, but we don’t see this. She is sacked. Her friend the professor appears with starched young woman from Human Resources (Katy Warner) and Cassell makes jokes about her being German, as they do in British popular comedies. An Australian journalist did this about a White Aborigine and ended up in Courtroom Number One at the Federal Court. When Cassell is confronted by her persecutors she goes to get the aid of a union rep and returns with a toy polar bear she calls Maureen. Noni Hazlehurst’s character has the good lines and it’s funny but it’s not the black comedy it should have been: the despair beneath the wit wasn’t there.

Before seeing the play I was dreading seeing another graph. Yes, there it was. The climate controversy isn’t about graphs, it’s politics, politics, politics. If ever it was about science the debate has moved on. Climategate, graphs, the hockey stick have all been done to death. The science bits in the play you could have found in books, magazine articles and blog posts. Really not worth paying over eighty dollars for.

There came a time in Act II when three characters sat around a table excitedly looking at their laptops and together exploring leaked climate e-mails. It’s an obvious retelling of Climategate. That was November 2009, this was May 2012. Political theatre must be relevant and this was like a history lesson. It was also badly recalled. Here a warmist professor and a deeply green student are converted by the contents of the e-mails. In real life the warmists simply made excuses. Here the dishonesty in the leaked e-mails convinces the warmist professor and student that there is truth in what the sceptics have been arguing. The Climategate e-mails were hailed by sceptics as vindicating their arguments, and excused by the warmists. There was little movement in either camp. The warmists found them completely unconvincing. Nothing has changed. Open the MTC program: “The scandal given the name ‘Climategate’ was a typical nine day wonder. For a brief time in late 2009, until reason wrested back control, the scandal inflamed global warming doubters and deniers, especially those in the conservative commentariat.” It’s an indication of how uncommitted the MTC is to this play that the program denies the sceptics credibility, and sources it gives for the text are all warmist and sceptic-debunking. Not a single reference is given to an Australian sceptic scientist or website.

There is a climax when Phoebe has a heart attack in her mother’s house, a converted barn where they have been celebrating Christmas. From where he has been hiding upstairs, the crazed green university security officer Geoff rushes down to give her CPR. As he does so, marauding, extremist green protestors are driven away from the house by, almost, shouting boo. This isn’t political theatre, it’s marshmallow and untruthful.

At play’s end the cast prepare for a wedding between hurt and dangerous children. Diane Cassell is on stage with Professor Maloney as her daughter Phoebe comes on in smart wedding dress with what seems to be half a basketball bulging beneath the fabric. Enter bridegroom Ben wearing what he says was the last thing the charity shop had in stock, a spotless black dress jacket and black kilt above his Doc Martens. Hazlehurst is wearing something grandly wonderful from Maggie T with a long and flowing Isadora scarf. Seriously, this was meant to be a happy ending. An anorexic young woman whose condition has weakened her heart, and who is prone to violence—she had attacked her mother onstage—is marrying a violent and self-harming green extremist who believes the population should be culled. Is that really the happy-ever-after ending Richard Bean has given his play? If it is it deserved undermining. Dress skinny, belly-protruding Phoebe in an ill-fitting wedding dress, put Ben into real and grubby op shop clothes, and put Dr Cassell into something less smart and more practical for a chilling finis suggesting the bad times that are just around their corner. 

Interlude

In the drawing room the fire crackles. The set is Victorian. The men wear early twenty-first-century Fletcher Jones (before its demise), the women wear something old something new. The aide-de-camp is in uniform, the deputy private secretary in a lounge suit. We are at Government House, about forty of us, to salute the first ten years of the Tasmanian Classical Ballet Company. There are oysters in half shells, devilled things on toothpicks, and chardonnay. The ballet company is Mark and Linda Reddish. Each year they bring together a group of dancers who rehearse and for a short season tour the island. It’s a personal dream. Thoroughly commendable. The Governor speaks, we applaud Mark and Linda. There is no dancing on the carpeted floor, so Mrs Governor, in a pink cardigan, plays Chopin. Behind her towers a portrait of Queen Mary. Tasmania is different. 

Performing fleas

I didn’t mean to. I’ve booked for a play called On the Production of Monsters by playwright, director and academic Robert Reid, and it turns out to be its first night. I expected the glitterati, I was wrong. Place is the Melbourne Theatre Company’s Lawler Studio, a small playing space below their large auditorium in Melbourne’s Southbank. As Ms Hazlehurst is performing upstairs the program notes on playwright Reid tactfully neglect to list another play he wrote called Noni Hazlehurst is Dead.

There is a long, slightly raised, rectangular playing space overlooked by banked rows of seats on two sides. Over there, as we wait in the half-light before the play begins, individual faces illuminate as people phone-worship. French songs are playing. There are only about fifty people here and I notice a woman with frizzy hair sitting on an aisle seat with notebook and pen. Critic, I think. I look at my own pen. It’s an advertisement for Advantage: “Everyone suffers when fleas die slowly. Give your pets the fastest relief from fleas.” Unfortunately, once the play begins I find there will be no fast relief for me from the hour and twenty-five minutes, when life goes into slow-motion, I have to spend in the company of Ben and Shari—“typical inner-city hipsters, plunged into the city and giving off cool like some retro air-conditioner”.

The critic I spotted, isn’t. It’s even worse—she works for the MTC and comes forward to introduce the play, the playwright and the production team who are all roosted on the top row of seats opposite. That’s also where the loudest and most persistent laughter will come from. The room must be papered with their friends as this recognition of their massed presence is applauded. She says the play has had a long development period. In simplified English that means the last boat has gone and the band is playing “Nearer My God to Thee”. She also says the play will only stop if the actors are in physical danger—I never did work that out, though did have moments of hoping.

The poster was nice, artwork by Dain Fagerholm who lives in Seattle. The play is less nice. It’s a self-admiring Melbourne catalogue play. It mentions suburbs, foods, coffee shops, rivers, and public transport. These are more important than the plot which has to do with an e-mailed photograph which may be paedophilic and which causes great public embarrassment and allows more characters to be introduced. There are only two players, Virginia Gay and James Saunders. It’s confusing as to which character they are playing. The woman in all her guises is a chemical revolution feminist and the male is consistently MTC weak and dull. Neither player is very interesting to watch and the night drags.

A lady opposite nods off intermittently and adds suspense and drama to the occasion as her head descends down and down before being jerked back into the “I’m really watching” position at full mast. She got my Best Supporting Actor Award but the real star of the show, also not mentioned in the cast list, was the floor—credit to set designer Andrew Bailey. As we sat and waited for the play to begin there was nothing much else to do so most of us stared at the floor. It was noticeable that there were holes in certain parts. The play began with a blackout and as the stage lighting comes on the two actors are standing at opposite ends of the stage. They walk briskly forward, stoop and pull up parts of the flooring. Parts of the floor turn out to be flatpacks and they are folded to become a collapsible table and chairs. From the cavities beneath where they had been come cups and plates. The actors are in a coffee shop, the dialogue is forgettable. This happens again and again. The two players move about the stage to pull the floor apart and assemble it into a school fence, an office, and a train compartment—then more dialogue. It’s hipster Ikea, and the Saturday Age. At play’s end I applauded the floor, warmly, and headed for the door, hopefully.

To be fair to the play, the Australian thought it was “rampantly imaginative” and that “[Clare] Watson’s production is the sachet of sugar helping the macchiato go down—in the most delightful way”. Flea powder anyone? 


The Heretic by Richard Bean played at the Sumner Theatre from May 12 to June 23. 

On the Production of Monsters by Robert Reid played at the Lawler Studio from May 23 to June 9.