The mesmerising Guy Pearce

The Melbourne Theatre Company’s new Sumner Theatre opened with “a play with songs” by Matt Cameron and Tim Finn. Cameron wrote the play bit and Finn wrote the song bits. The play bit was about a seven-year-old boy called Jem (Gulliver McGrath) who suddenly says he is really a dead thirty-something called Danny. The dead Danny (Guy Pearce) appears onstage and can be seen by the boy and the audience but not by the other actors. For much of the play Danny speaks for the boy. There are two households, one with the boy’s family and the other with Danny’s family—including his widowed wife. Clear?

The play is overwritten, the music is tacked on. All the cast sing capably but these are illogical musical interludes which break across the storytelling. There is an interesting set (designed by Iain Aitken) of a house frame in the centre of the stage with stairs running upwards into other rooms and up higher to become the crow’s nest of a ship, there is a changing backcloth of sky, there is a tap with running water—the usual sort of stuff. The play is capably directed by Simon Phillips, and there is nothing to get excited about. Except for one thing—Guy Pearce.

Pearce was a pretty boy actor, the heartthrob of Geelong College who went to Neighbours and Priscilla and Hollywood. He has made some good films and some rather ordinary. His cheekbones were his good fortune. That was then. Now he is ageing. The face is falling into a shape that has not yet been determined. The pretty boy is gone and in his place is a brilliant actor.

I had a seat in the second row. Above my head was the giant sound box from which the songs indistinctly squawked. The actors were miked and their voices came from odd places. Being so close the effect of the set was lost. However, I did see the actors.

Though the play was banal and the music lyrics irrelevant, when Pearce was onstage it worked.

John X also does this. He is a Hobart actor. His real name is John Xintavelonis but it’s been shortened to X to fit in the programs. I have been to plays which have begun miserably and I have wanted to escape, to be far away. Then John X has come onstage and suddenly it’s all right. You see, when this presence business works—and this is something X and Pearce possess—it also washes over the other actors. Even actors who had you cringing are suddenly not just okay but funny or interesting and even likable.

When Pearce was onstage it happened. He fitted the play together, made the not-so-great words make sense, and got it moving. When the other actors were at work on the text, the play stalled. Competent actors all, they drew attention to its blemishes and failed to set it in motion.

The attraction with Guy Pearce was not the famous face but the body. He is an uncomfortable actor—though uncomfortable is surely not the right word to describe the life of his characterisation. Close up he looks uncomfortable onstage because he looks living.

Let’s go back. This is a lousy seat. All I see are the actors. They move about the stage like actors. They laugh, cry, scream, sing and all that sort of thing. They act, then pause and pay attention as someone else on stage does their bit. They talk again and do their actions. Exactly what you would expect. Pearce is different.

He is often in motion. He is there, he is here, he is over there. But he doesn’t simply walk across the stage. He is some sort of dancer (which sounds too effeminate) or perhaps a sportsman (which sounds too overpowering). His movements were planned and executed as steps in a dance. He crosses the stage to stand by his (the boy’s) mother. He lands by her on the balls of his feet. The weight then goes to his heels. As he talks to her his body moves again onto the balls of his feet, his heels slightly rise and he is getting ready to move away. I know this, because in my not-very-good seat, my eyes are at stage level. I see the light under the soles of his shoes as he prepares his moves.

Pearce goes towards a chair. He hangs his overcoat over its back, then steps away from it. Most actors, I suspect, would do this simply and naturally and then assume an alert position as the dialogue bounces about the stage. Pearce hangs the coat and steps back but his arms are still slightly moving or quivering. It is like seeing a living person on stage. Close up it is fascinating. It underlies and supports his broader performance. He is playing a dead man but he is the most living being on that stage. Perhaps it is his film training, perhaps it is acting constructed with attention to fine detail.

Pearce moves across the stage, turns and faces an actress. As he is turning, his back now towards the central stairs, one arm simultaneously stretches out behind him towards the railing. His hand lands unerringly on it. His fingers grip and move slightly over the metal. With these subtle movements he is never entirely at rest. This is what makes him look “uncomfortable”. None of this appears to have been done to draw attention to himself—for surely it is invisible to most of the audience and yet it is the essential skeleton of his performance.

When Pearce and the boy talk, real sentiment arises. It creates an emotional intensity that an audience feels and responds to. Within the boy’s own family group there is not a real sense that they are a family, they are only playing their parts. When Pearce, as he does several times, comes into physical contact with the other actors there is a gentleness and warmth in his gestures. Placing his arm around his mother evokes softness and even sensuality. There is a depth and a sense of detail to his acting which is lacking in the other performances. If all our theatres were tiny, and we all sat in the second row watching this sort of acting, theatre going would be a far richer experience.

This acting is not a question of face pulling, and for much of the play Pearce’s face seems set in a quizzical seriousness, but of body and sensitivity and movement. Here is a fine actor. At home, watching Robert De Niro in the awful film New York, New York, there is one scene which makes me think of Pearce. In a brief interlude with Liza Minnelli towards the end of the film De Niro gives the same impression of being a real person in a pretend world.

I’m not sure of Pearce’s voice. Not sure, because of the wretched miking system, of what it is capable, but here is an actor who could (at forty-one he is now too old) have been a remarkable Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or still be a remarkable Richard II. While other actors have become the toys of our directors, here is a playwright’s actor capable of reading and playing texts.

At play’s end came the curtain call. I am sorry for the cliché but truly the switch was thrown. The man who took his place in the cast line-up was no longer Danny. It was Guy Pearce—the actor, the Hollywood star, the man who wears Birkenstock sandals ($500 a pair), the self-assured professional who, for two and half hours, had been mesmerising in a play that had nothing much going for it.

The Theatre Royal was the venue for the Sydney Theatre Company’s touring production of The Year of Magical Thinking, written by Joan Didion, with Robyn Nevin directed by Cate Blanchett. The sole-performer role has been performed by Vanessa Redgrave and, recently in Perth, by Helen Morse. Sitting down with a program, which cost $10, I realised that I had just bought a copy of the STC program left over from their Sydney performances in March 2008.

When Didion’s writer husband John Gregory Dunne died she turned his death into a publisher’s advance and wrote a book about the year that followed his death—her year. When it was suggested that she turn that into a play she was not keen—because she was on the road publicising the book: “I had promotion ahead, flights, 5 a.m. pickups, Starbucks cappuccino at the gate in lieu of breakfast … I did not know how to write a play.” But she did. The suggestion was made in October. Her daughter had died in August and that useful death provided more material for the ninety-minute play. Any more deaths in her shrinking family and she could have added a second act. And she was right. She does not know how to write a play. What she has written is a talking book. It is pretentious and tedious.

On stage a lot of chairs are arranged in rows. For this, set designer Alice Babidge takes credit. Robyn Nevin moves between chairs. The lights go off, the lights come on. There is some noise—“designed” by Natasha Anderson. Nevin takes off her jacket. She puts on her jacket. The single costume is by Giorgio Armani, the Patron of the STC. As costume designer he gets a three-quarter-page plug in the program. When radio announcers do this sort of advertising they get into trouble. Here it is sold as Art.

In Nevin’s performance there is no excitement, no originality. Didion is a woman who talks and for an hour and a half Robyn Nevin talks and talks. Guy Pearce represents something original; Nevin represents the public service of acting.

This annoying character on stage lectures us, like the pompous English Lit feminist she is, about the location of New York hospitals, the staff of New York hospitals, books, writers and films, her apartment, her trips overseas, a medivac flight, a cornfield, snow on New York streets, a fire in her apartment, her husband and their daughter. Any real emotion about their deaths died long ago. The words flow as if released from one of those long essays the old New Yorker used to publish with self-consciously fine writing about nothing very much covering pages and pages of shiny paper. If they worked they were memorable, when they didn’t (which was often) you turned the pages rapidly. In this case, frankly, I couldn’t give a damn.

There is a very serious problem with this performance which has nothing to do with the play. It is taking place eleven days after that Saturday of the Victorian bushfires. Every night since then there has been more drama, more death, more emotion on the evening news than anything this piece can produce. Nevin’s performance leaves me untouched. At the fifteen-minute mark of a play which started late I’m already looking at my watch.

Despite having performed the play before this regional tour she was still occasionally stumbling over the words. Maybe she will have this under control by the time the play moves on to Melbourne for its MTC season.

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