Two Plays, Two Directors

At Melbourne’s Arts Centre Playhouse there was a moment of awed silence at the beginning of Tom Stoppard’s Rock ’n’ Roll when Matthew Newton stepped onto the stage.

And then chitter-chatter cartwheeled through the auditorium as the deaf explained to the deaf the delicate matter of his parentage. And then, as it were, with the invisible but surely benign smiles of Bert and Patti hovering over us, the play chugged off into the politics of late- twentieth-century Czechoslovakia and Cambridge, England. And there was also some loud, but not too loud, music.

Stoppard’s reputation throws a familiar shadow before him—Stoppard the prankster, Stoppard the word juggler, Stoppard the intellectual. As well as the plays we remember, he also wrote film scripts for Empire of the Sun and Shakespeare in Love. Sometimes the impression, often left by critics wielding political hatchets, is that all the dictionary playfulness has made his plays only dryly amusing and that the intellectual discussion he loves could be more safely handled in their lecture halls. However, at Sanity shops they file the DVDs of his Shakespeare under “Chick Flicks”, for Stoppard is capable of uniting intellect and sentiment.

In the Melbourne Theatre Company production of Rock ’n’ Roll the cast offer moments of wonderful emotional depth. Genevieve Picot plays dual roles of an English bluestocking academic mother and her grown-up daughter. Now this is a political play, a play about politics and the people who suffer from politics. Stoppard is unusual, a conservative permitted to write in today’s theatre. He is also unusual, especially by our standards, in that he treats fairly those with whose politics he disagrees. Most of the people on stage are leftists. They are portrayed with compassion. Picot, the cancer-riddled dying feminist, evokes understanding and touching sympathy. Now who would have thought that was possible?

This is not because the MTC, the actors, the director and the people who take your ticket (who are probably all raving leftists) have inverted Stoppard’s play. It is because this is how the play was written. It is a play of ideas that actually represents conflicting sides of arguments.

I read Rock ’n’ Roll before I saw it. It was one of those times when the experience of theatre-going was better than reading. Often what one imagines in one’s head is much, much better than what ends up on stage. After seeing it I walked into St Kilda Road thinking thoughts only fit for a publicity lady’s press release, for Rock ’n’ Roll really is in the capable hands of a talented and assured director, a fine cast and a lighting magician.

Theatrical magic, or trickery, used to develop character or underline the playwright’s purpose is wonderful stuff. Take an example. At one point there is a busy luncheon party on stage. It is the usual thing. Civilised munchers turn into angry and rapacious predators who add their fellow guests to the menu. Picot, now playing the daughter Esme, is seated slightly apart from the other diners. She is a little aloof, a little lost in her own world, but not ignored by the audience because the lighting by Matt Scott seems more intense around her figure. Even as the conversation about her turns wild and lively she is still very much a part of what is taking place and even seems at times to silently dominate the assembly. At the other end of the table Jan (Matthew Newton) and Lenka (Danielle Cormack) are talking and laughing and somehow we see this from Esme’s point of view and know the error she is making in her thoughts. It is fine acting and a subtle and artistic use of theatricality which shows director Simon Phillips fully attuned to the text, his technical collaborators and his actors.

In London and New York the part of Jan, the Czech student in Cambridge in 1968 who returns to Prague and becomes a dissident because of his love of rock-and-roll (which is a very superficial telling of the story) was played by Rufus Sewell. Seen in various movies, Sewell has the glowering sort of looks which could rather suit a theatrical idea of Middle European romanticism. The casting of Matthew Newton presented a very different idea of the role. His Jan is open, vulnerable, his moments of cleverness and assurance wiped away by uncertainties and powerlessness.

Max, the Cambridge academic, was played by William Zappa. Perhaps we should think of Eric Hobsbawm. Oddly enough, and with zillions of Australian examples of unreformed, unapologetic Communist Party members to think of, the person who kept getting into my mind as I read the play was journalist Rupert Lockwood. Max was born at the same time as the 1917 October Revolution and was a lifelong communist who outlived his wife and the Soviet Union.

It is the strength of Stoppard’s writing that the arguments for communism made by Max are intellectually strong. The opposing viewpoint, as represented by Jan, is not so much presented as an intellectual argument. Jan lives history; Max, the communist and academic, only theorises. If you went through the play and assembled the intellectual arguments for communism you would not find them balanced by equally strong intellectual anticommunist arguments. It is a power of the play that subversive counter-arguments against totalitarianism are made both by historic newsreel images projected onto the set and the rock-and-roll played throughout.

Jan represents ordinary inarticulate desires to live our lives freely and unpersecuted. At one point he talks movingly of the ordinary English things which so appeal to him, the simple beauties and freedoms of English life. If the same points had been expressed on stage about Australia they undoubtedly would have produced jeers and laughter from sophisticated audiences; just as they have scorned Australian politicians who have attempted to express similar love and similar feelings.

Hidden in the play is a tormenting possibility. Very late in it Stephen (Grant Cartwright) makes his appearance. He is the latest boyfriend of Esme’s daughter Alice (Chloe Armstrong). He is a modern Marxist and even as Max argues violently with him he is a smiling young version of the older man. He writes for a Marxist journal and though they squabble they do so from inside the same religion. Max is dying and (God help us all) the future may belong to Stephen.

Stoppard has been generous towards Max. William Zappa skilfully plays a difficult, mercurial man, unfair and angry, but human and at moments even likeable. It would be hard to imagine an Australian playwright describing a conservative with such humanity. At one point Max’s Czech secret police file is opened, revealing that he wrote a comprehensive political report for them in order to have Jan released from prison. Western communists who became best friends with the KGB and its affiliates were usually happy to do so for simple devotion to their faith, or money, or Soviet book royalties, or because the Soviets pretended to take them seriously. It is Stoppard’s weakness that he allows Max the cop-out of having done so for Jan. A real Cambridge Marxist Max would probably have turned his back on Jan’s predicament.

Not always are playwrights’ scripts in such sure hands. In February I had been to Melbourne to the Playhouse to see the Sydney Theatre Company Actors Company in Patrick White’s The Season at Sarsaparilla. I went, misled by kiss-and-puff reviews, pleasurably anticipating this production directed by Benedict Andrews.

At the best of times Sarsaparilla is an hour too long. The text slides between antipodean Under Milk Wood and a portentous White novel. But despite unnecessary characters and sometimes banal speeches there is also gold lying around, as actress Kate Fitzpatrick discovered:

“The play explores typical issues of keeping up appearances, the war’s aftermath, poverty, dreams of escape, artistic suppression, depression, loneliness, social-climbing aspirations, the stirrings of a different middle class, putting on brave faces, never asking for help, obsessive secrecy especially when it comes to neighbours, minding your own business in public and everyone else’s in private, and most forms of hypocrisy. Things don’t seem to have changed very much.”

But theatre directors have.

Andrews judged the writing far more bleakly than Fitzpatrick had done. White’s play, he wrote, was a “savage attack on Australian ways of life. His suburbia is a nightmare. A conservative monocultural hell of stultification and judgement. Peering into the homes which underpinned the doctrine of the Menzies government, he saw cultural disease and spiritual sickness.”

In Andrews’ reading, Sarsaparilla “contains the DNA of the contemporary McMansion belt and the neo-conservatism of Australia under John Howard, where the threat of a rising interest rate will win elections and continue to breed that Great Australian Emptiness”. Touch reality for a moment. This intellectualocrat snobbery was printed (after Kevin Rudd’s 2007 election victory) in overpriced MTC theatre programs between advertisements for Cartier jewellery, first and business-class seats on Emirates airlines, Mercedes-Benz cars, Oroton, a global assets manager and investment bank, Epicure Catering, and Baume & Mercier watches. It was hardly a credible position from which to launch an attack on suburban materialism.

Take my seat for this matinee performance, please. You are seated in the very front row, in seat B24. The play begins. Here comes John Gaden. Gaden is a leading Australian actor. He is worth watching. But I see you don’t believe me. You don’t think that really was John Gaden who came onstage and walked through a flywire door on the set into the house. Why? Because sitting in the bloody first row, during the bloody first act of this over-puffed production, all you can see of John Gaden in the kitchen is an inch or so of the top of his bloody head.

Andrews praised Patrick White: “Australian theatre has never had better stage directions. His are funny, concrete, mysterious.” On page 1 of these “mysterious” directions White wrote that the presentation of the suburban houses in the set “may be suggested by the designer provided the audience’s view is not obstructed”. Benedict Andrews, director, and Robert Cousins, set designer, took fine actors and fed them to the set. The set did not frame the actors, it devoured them. Andrews should have given the horrible thing a speaking part.

Sarsaparilla deals with three households in a suburban street. It was written for performance with three separate kitchens on stage opening onto their backyards. In this production set designer Robert Cousins built a single and very solid brick veneer house which he placed on a revolve. When the play begins the audience face the back of the house which has two large windows opening onto the kitchen, a flywire door, and two smaller windows above the kitchen sink. The players go into the brick veneer box and are seen by the audience through the windows. The director and set designer were unconcerned that this meant that at certain angles and from certain seats the walls obscured the audience’s view of the actors. When revolved only the two other sides of the house became visible. Flanking the stage, two large video screens showed scenes filmed inside the house.

The text calls for dogs and children to move about under the houses, and those White envisaged were probably fibro cottages or postwar weatherboard. The solid brick veneer house, without space underneath, made this impossible and the production problem was solved, not successfully, by using a trapdoor in the centre of the stage. The brick veneer coffin was chosen not because of the theatrical demands of the play but to make a dull, familiar and clichéd criticism of suburbia.

After interval I found an empty seat in the dress circle, and then discovered the other blind spots caused by the wretched set.

So, with a single kitchen set all three families occupied the same space, often at the same time, with each grouping navigating the area supposedly oblivious of the presence of the other actors. The novelty added only confusion and ignored the most important reality of suburban living, and a key theme of the play—suburban privacy.

Peter Carroll played Girlie Pogson in drag. Correction, Peter Carroll played Girlie Pogson as Judith Bliss in drag. It was an audience-pleasing performance in the wrong play. Gaden and Carroll played the Pogsons, but this made the couple twenty years closer to death than they should have been. When Girlie dreamed of her childhood she looked and sounded like a twilight-home lifer in reminisce mode. The parts should be played by actors in their forties, nearer in age to their neighbours Ernie and Nola Boyle. When Nola was nagged by Girlie it should not have sounded, as it did, as if she was being lectured by her grandmother. White’s balance between two similar-aged but very different couples was destroyed.

Amber McMahon as Pippy Pogson was also too old to convincingly portray a young child. That her even younger playmate Deedree (Alan John) was also played in drag was silly and detracted from McMahon’s efforts to represent Pippy’s emotional transformation during the course of the play.

Pamela Rabe played Nola Boyle: “A sanitary lady’s life is not all roses.” It is a fine acting part which has been inhabited by Zoe Caldwell in 1962 and Kate Fitzpatrick in 1976. In his stage directions White described Nola as being “In her forties, she is dressed in a chenille dressing-gown. Generous of figure. Tawny of head. A lioness.” For the part Zoe Caldwell lost glamour. She messed with her hair and added weight. Rabe was a suburban goddess, she was neither “generous of figure” nor a “lioness”, she was a cat on a hot tin roof. It is a measure of Andrews’ misdirection that Rabe looked stunning in a chenille dressing gown. It was lovely stuff, in the wrong play.

Playing Nola should be a milepost in the career of an actress. Inexcusably, Andrews and his set ruined Rabe’s performance. There was a seduction scene, to which the director added considerable violence so that Nola was being practically raped by Rowley Masson (Colin Moody) and then, well, I don’t know. I don’t know what happened next because the masonry ate them—they simply disappeared. Pamela Rabe, who could blast audiences away performing on a bare stage lit by a single forty-watt globe, was upstaged by a hunk of pretend brick veneer. Or should we be nominating the second brick from the left for a best newcomer acting award?

The director’s addiction to novelty meant that inside the single kitchen set the actors were upstaged by the mere presence of the other characters going about their business. In the case of the young couple, Harry (Martin Blum) and his pregnant wife Mavis (Emily Russell), the individuality and tenderness they sought to establish between themselves was destroyed by the visual presence of the other characters. In real life being in the path of Peter Carroll in full voice and full drag would have caused Mavis to miscarry.

White surely enjoyed jolting audiences by putting dunnyman Ernie Boyle (Brandon Burke) onto the stage. His professional calling is a near-forgotten bit of Australiana and this production failed to generate the sense of shock earlier audiences would have experienced at seeing this social untouchable under the spotlight. Gertrude Lawrence carried into the 1950s a trick she learnt in glamorous 1930s West End productions. Before making her first entrance she sprayed the hem of her frocks with expensive perfume. Coming on stage she would give a sharp turn so that the fabric swirled outwards and the fragrance wafted into the stalls. Ernie needed to douse the audience with the evocative stink of Phenol; he needed them to shiver at his very appearance. White’s text references to smells and showers in the play were reminders of Ernie’s calling.

Throughout the play the production continually struck false notes. Towards its end the dunnyman donned a suit for a trip to the pub and Brandon Burke suddenly looked comfortable and relaxed, like a shining-jawed policeman in an Australian television police drama. He should have resembled someone uncomfortably wearing a bagged 1950s best suit only brought out for the Anzac Day march and funerals. As dunnyman he was uncomfortable, dressed up he was sophisticated. It was all the wrong way about.

The video cameras which punctuated the set were toys used for YouTube exhibitionism. Onto the side screens were projected unnecessary offstage actions and even bits of the set. At my matinee the video operator may have had the afternoon off because the images were often either unfocused or pointless. Andrews even used the cameras to undermine his actors’ performances. Early in the play Nola talks to Ernie as he showers offstage. She makes three statements essential for the growth of her characterisation. She passes from the line “Gee, you look funny, Ern, with the water tricklin’ down your chest!” to “Gotta watch the fat, though”, which gets her thinking sexually of the “Eyetalian going to buy that block up the street”. The scene belongs to Nola but Andrews used his video screens to show Ernie in the shower—with real running water. The audience should be concentrating on Nola, not trying to see a flash of her naked husband’s sanitary apparatus.

Sarsaparilla did not benefit from this clumsy renovation. The play may be flawed, but there is an underlying and solid framework which Andrews’ uncomprehending staging only undermined.

Two plays, two directors, and very different results.

Rock ’n’ Roll opens at the Sydney Theatre on April 15 and runs until May 10. The Season at Sarsaparilla was at Melbourne’s Arts Centre Playhouse until February 16.

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