Burnt by brilliance

August: Osage County played at Sydney Theatre from August 13 to September 25.
Gwen in Purgatory played at Belvoir Street Theatre from July 31 to September 19.
Burnt by the Sun played at the New Theatre from August 19 to September 11.

The tornado, which had corkscrewed in via stages in Chicago, New York and London, blew itself out. Untidily it let fall debris, including scripts, actors and actresses and a large country home, swept up outside Pawhuska, Oklahoma, sixty miles north-west of Tulsa. The house, by set designer Todd Rosenthal, smashed through the ceiling and tumbled, with its front torn off exposing its rooms like a doll’s house, ending upright and centre stage at the Sydney Theatre. It missed braining Cate Blanchett by inches.

On its way to us, August: Osage County won a Tony for the set design, a Tony and Pulitzer for Tracy Letts’s script, and actress Deanna Dunagan grabbed a Tony and critics’ awards for her portrayal of Violet Weston. Premiered by the Chicago-based Steppenwolf Theatre Company in 2007, it was staged last year by the Melbourne Theatre Company. This time the Sydney Theatre Company had imported the original Steppenwolf ensemble production, to the relief of audiences allergic to local actors doing American accents.

Blind-covered windows glow yellow from outside light. The interior rooms are dark and dimly lit. It’s easy to miss the fact that all the window shades have been taped shut. From attic to den it’s sitting there on the stage waiting for us as we find our seats. For over three hours we snoop into the lives of others. For all that time, minus two ten-minute intervals, this packed theatre follows a great, huge, superlative sucking melodrama.

At first laughs come too easily, as though the audience is nervous, and then they break out in different parts of the auditorium like spot fires thrown out by a bushfire and then there are the great shared laughs. It’s an odd reaction. As the dialogue roars along there is a laugh over there, or beside me, or I find something funny. It’s sporadic and interesting that we are all reacting differently. And even this cast, most of whose members have been playing their parts for years, don’t always seem prepared for where the laughs, littered amid the shocks and provocations, will occur, and occasionally dialogue is buried under the audience’s reactions. Maybe it was a good idea importing the American production, and maybe that production, good as it is, has lost its edge—it must be brain-damaging repeating the same parts week after week, after month, after year, no matter what the geography.

It’s a dinosaur. Plump and well written, a melodrama soapodrama, three rounds of women battling across a full evening of family unfriendly entertainment. A new play so old-fashioned in construction that it even has a brilliant curtain line (though there is no curtain) at the end of the second act. After a dinner scene where mayhem is served hot and fast comes a traffic accident pile-up of actors with Barbara Fordham (played by Amy Morton) rising above the chaos and screaming in triumphant capitals: “I’M RUNNING THINGS NOW!” An exclamation that has the audience gasping and noisily exploding as the blackout falls. A lesson in writing and pacing a play for dull Australian authors whose hydrocephalic stage creations unnaturally gentle elderly female audiences reassuringly applaud as works of normality.

It’s a foulmouthed beast, satellite high on prescription drugs and hate. It’s female and menacing; an endangered bitch with no intention of going peacefully into nothingness. It’s Days of Our Lives and it’s like one of those American plays that used to hole up in books with titles like The Best Plays of Nineteen Thirty Something. It’s late Bette Davis, the 1960s period with the old drama queen playing in Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte—with words that never, publicly, passed Miss Davis’s lips but minus the hatchet. Plays like this were long ago written off by gassy high-culture lit-critics but Violet’s long loud scream of pain and damnation reaches out to bring in the box-office queues. That the play comes from the renowned and fashionable Steppenwolf Company has worked in its favour. Had an Australian writer written this it would have wilted from neglect.

Letts is extravagant with his use of actors. The play launches with a long monologue by Beverly Weston (Chelcie Ross) who then disappears until the curtain calls a long evening later. His disappearance is the reason for the play. It brings together family members for several bouts of Oklahoma gothic as the family tree is pulled up by the roots and thrown onto a bonfire. Letts works through a catalogue of alcoholism, broken marriages (are there any other in the theatre?), drug addiction, fornication, paedophilia, poetry, philosophy and more.

The stage is peopled by the customary strong women who seem to have stepped out of feminist dramas—which, given that Letts is a Steppenwolf actor, may be the case. His female characters are prodigiously scatological.

The final act begins with the three daughters discussing their mother’s drug addiction. She hides her stash within her body and the women suggest and laugh, as does the audience, at what names they can apply to the orifice under duress. In our world to even suggest that this filth is filth makes one feel that the questioner is being somewhat impolite.

American theatre critic George Jean Nathan wrote in 1935, and it seems not just dated but of a different civilisation, of “smut”. He was arguing against censorship: “Smut is no part of art or even pseudo-art and its forced elimination should not concern any anti-censorship body with an ounce of intelligence left in its head.” It was a distinction Kenneth Tynan never matured enough to understand and is completely alien to our hi-tech baby-witted world. Smut makes art and it has become bad manners or inappropriate to merely mention its presence. To do so breaks a modern taboo. Culture echoes. Off-Broadway plays that gave critics the opportunity to count the repetitions of obscenities in the 1960s introduced a vocabulary that now plays mainstage. It’s because the elite paddle in this sewage at one end of the pool that our society drowns in it at the other.

The child Jean Fordham (Molly Ranson) will become her mother, her aunts, her grandmother as the drama of The Ages of Unhappy Women plays out around her. She is a pot-smoking, superior, randy fourteen-year-old. Before her the wounded members of her family foretell her own disaster and not one of the adults seriously tries to hold her back, just as none is capable of stopping their own decline. Any whisper of “No” is discredited because of their own inability to be perfect. Her bitter future is ordained. The present is collapsing, the future is her addicted grandmother.  

This wildly old-fashionedly crafted play is, of course, wildly new to young audiences bored stiff with the modern plays they endured in school and at university. Its adherence to old forms they thought they had killed off has naturally annoyed some establishment critics. 

It pleases audiences because it is continually unexpected. It doesn’t take us where we expect to go. Certain familiar cues are suddenly diverted—much to the audience’s delight. Here, towards the end of the play, Barbara talks to the family’s native American (oh yes) maid:

Barbara: What did my father say to you?
Johnna: He talked a lot about his daughters … his three daughters, and his granddaughter. That was his joy.
Barbara: Thank you. That makes me feel better. Knowing that you can lie. (Beat) I want you to stay on.

Tracy Letts writes like an actor: every player gets their bit—a chance to show off centre-stage.

The STC program comes through with customary flying colours with an academic’s discussion of the text that brings in the failings of Ronald Reagan and Sarah Palin but, surprisingly, spares us a bashing reference to Bush’s America—maybe they rely on critics to do that. But it isn’t about the hypocrisies and failings of conservatism. This is the Marvel Comics edition of that popular, barnstorming three-act drama The Decline and Fall of American Liberalism.

This house is Big Brother, it’s YouTube, it’s Facebook, it’s fake reality theatre. Our old idea of progress isn’t what it used to be. The new communications and its consumers now muddle up fifty-year-old performances, something that happened this morning, and something that never happened. Progress isn’t going in the same direction any more.

As this plays down by the harbour, in a nearby Sydney suburb a public service theatre churns out the same-old, tired-old, bad-old, dreary-old theatre we are used to. Surry Hills is a new-class sacred site of pricey real estate held in place by dirty, drug-flavoured streets. A place where mean-looking terrace houses display three wheelie bins (different coloured lids) on cramped front verandahs under ever-closed windows. It’s the hideout of the Belvoir Street Theatre where Tommy Murphy’s Gwen in Purgatory is playing.

It’s supposedly a naturalistic play. Ninety-something Gwen has moved into a new house on the borderlands of Queanbeyan. Her family visit but not one of them helps her unpack, for today’s moralising lecture is about old age and unsupportive families. They all see there is no food in the house yet she is left alone. Gwen goes offstage and reappears in archaic tennis lady outfit—and the audience laughs. It is one of those infuriating plays where a noise is heard on the roof and the actors hold an endless discussion about what could be making it, and nobody goes outside to see what it is. It’s Gwen’s elderly daughter throwing tennis balls on the roof to block up the spouting as a bushfire precaution. Banging is heard on the door and outside walls and it takes ages for the door to be opened to see who it is. There is the customary violence when nephew attacks uncle—after explaining to us, earlier in the play, the method he would use in the attack. Gwen is visited by family members and a priest. They all let her down, strip her of her car and access to the outside world, and she is left alone.

Commissioned by the Belvoir Street, the director Neil Armfield, one of the establishment’s cultural gatekeepers, is enthusiastic. He’s got to be—he’s selling a brown-spotted lemon. His voice is that of the guy who flogs the ever-sharp carving knives at Big W. Free steak knives with every purchase. It’s also an echo of the almost forgotten Sideshow Alley tout:

Falling somewhere between Ayckbourn and Ionesco, and nudging Chekhov along the way (I keep recalling Cherry Orchard), Gwen in Purgatory is actually sui generis—I really don’t know another play like it.

This is Chekhov? Remember that The Cherry Orchard may be the greatest play written last century. When we go into the auditorium Gwen (Melissa Jaffer) is sitting centre stage in an armchair reading. “What’s she reading? A script?” said a voice behind me. Around her are unopened packing cases. On one side is a modern kitchen bench, on the wall behind that a refrigerator and microwave. The back wall is the wall of her house with windows and a front door. As house lights dim the phone on the kitchen bench begins ringing. Gwen, to show us that she is very, very old, creakily moves into a standing position, pulls herself upright and heads for the phone. Please God, not this! Don’t do it. Don’t start the play with a tired, boring routine. But yes, just as she gets to it the phone stops ringing. She turns, goes back to her chair and sits and … the phone begins ringing. She fights to stand upright and heads for the bench, reaching for the phone as it stops ringing. This goes on, and on. At one point she reaches it in time but has not realised that this time it’s her mobile tingling—and she misses the call. Finally, triumphantly she moves the phone closer, gets hold of the mobile, takes up her reading—and finds she has left her glasses behind. This collection of stale sight gags takes over five minutes to perform. The audience laughs. A second drama is being acted out on this side of the stage where it’s like being stuck amidst a congregation from an old people’s home whose inmates are determined to show their pleasure at having escaped their prison for a day and being “entertained” no matter how amateurish and unfunny the performance.

This is Chekhov? A black Catholic priest (don’t ask) has come to bless Gwen’s new home. He wants a family member to read out a prayer. The only one onstage is her grandson Daniel (Nathaniel Dean). Priest looks towards grandson who looks as though he is being strangled. Despite overacting, this is a moment of real theatre. The look between two actors (hard to overlook) is read by the audience. We get it—this spark leaping between one player and another ignites a reaction in the audience. This is theatre. Unfortunately the director and his writer don’t get it. They force us to endure the utter boredom and embarrassment of the priest forcing the written words on the young man who has difficulty reading—even though he is an independent contract carrier who spends his days navigating a sea of delivery notes and instructions. This moment of stagecraft could have been built into something original and unexpected; instead it led to the obvious and the tedious.

This is Chekhov? Half a century or longer ago there was a successful revolt against bourgeois drawing room plays performed within a proscenium arch behind an imaginary fourth wall. The Belvoir has a thrust stage projecting into the audience but they still present these wind-up exhibits of outmoded writing and performance. The London drawing room has been renovated into Gwen’s Queanbeyan model kitchen. Dial telephones, vintage “Hello, Belgravia 4564”, have been replaced by musical ring-tone mobile phones. No imprisoning proscenium but the mechanical piece onstage plays away as though locked safely inside a perspex museum case.

This is Chekhov? Outside the auditorium threatening signs warned that the performance included a loud sound effect. As the play drivels towards its end Father Ezekiel (Pacharo Mzembe) is finally leaving—he promised to do so on page 47 and it takes until page 63 to get rid of him. In an obvious set-up, he twitters on about the room being cold and busybodily adjusts Gwen’s air-conditioning. The controls for that and her burglar alarm are close to each other beside the front door. We got it, too. He goes and she beats numbers into the alarm keypad with the skill of an Alzheimer-inflicted typing monkey. We wait for the utter predictability of what is about to happen. It does. The loud alarm goes off. Gwen throws herself in a tortured attitude against the wall. Main lights go out as a single bright beam bears down on old lady transfixed. How’s that for cliché? Gwen in Purgatory? It felt more like Audience Member in Hell. Curtain call and crumbling Gwen is revealed as an active elderly actress who could have stepped out of the active elderly audience.

This is Chekhov. It’s Treplyov in The Seagull:

I happen to think that the modern theatre is a narrow-minded and predictable ragbag of worn-out routines. … We need a new kind of theatre. If we can’t make it new it’s better to have none.

Gwen in Purgatory played in a small comfortable theatre space. Light, slight expressions by the actors on the stage would communicate to an audience. Instead the actors performed as though they were onstage at the Opera House and we were at Central Station, the Bankstown line. The Steppenwolf players, in repose or screaming, displayed competent, assured, masterful naturalistic acting.

Nathaniel Dean played Gwen’s grandson Daniel in the terminal stages of a disfiguring medieval twitching disease. Sue Ingleton’s Peg (Gwen’s daughter) swooped and pecked about the stage impersonating something birdlike but nothing human. And the script imposed a strange Catholicism on her character so that she had to compulsively break into religiosity—“Eternal rest grant him, O Lord”—whenever she mentioned a dead relative and to this she added a convulsive body movement (suggesting prayer?). Pacharo Mzembe’s priest was furiously weak and annoying. If played in black face by a white actor this audience would not have been laughing but threatening legal action.

Grant Dodwell’s Laurie (Gwen’s son) wandered in from an early David Williamson—and of course Williamson’s shadow hung heavily over this production. If Neil Armfield doesn’t know another play like Gwen in Purgatory he must have been out of the room when Williamson was getting started. Gwen in Purgatory is early Williamson, without the virility.

The overplaying suggested that no one, neither actors nor director, trusted the play’s words. Rather than simply performing the script they added business to save it—and so destroyed it. If performed without the decoration a quite different work may be present.

This play, which was really, really bad, had really, really great reviews from the Sydney critics. Their enthusiastic words will probably huckster it into winning a mess of Australian theatre awards—the rewards of Purgatory. The matinee audience I was amongst was also appreciative. They laughed, they applauded. The sheer weight of vulgarity (Chekhov again) had no effect on them. These elderly audiences, trained on theatre subscription offers which accustom them to take bad theatre as well as the less bad, can no longer distinguish between bad acting (which was evident) and good (which was absent). Perhaps they also read the newspaper reviews. And those critics? Maybe they saw another play, at another theatre, on another first night.

You just hope that somewhere out there are good plays, and that poor overpraised works like this are not all there is. Government-subsidised theatres nurture the second rate—it’s what they do, their reason for existence. It’s why we should be looking for different ways to fund the arts. Gwen in Purgatory was commissioned by Belvoir Street, the staged play is a co-production with Queensland’s La Boite Theatre Company. Murphy drew on the expertise of theatre experts for advice with his writing, he had money from the British Council to attend a playwrights’ program in London. Thanked for their help with “research” are an impressive list of priests, brothers and Catholic administrators—for a play that mocks Catholicism. Research is a code word used to justify a government arts grant or an excuse for delaying as long as possible putting words onto a screen. Murphy thanked five theatres and universities for giving him the space to write. The director comments that he has watched the play grow over two years.

This ninety-minute play, sixty-three large-type pages in the printed edition, could have been written in a few weeks. Yet, notes the director, when rehearsals started the “structural framework” was missing. The playwright didn’t have the story, but had the characters, and “the skeleton of action has been found over months and months of work”. That perfectly describes a recipe for dead theatre, the exact way to produce a pretentious play over-microwaved by a committee. We’ve been to Gwen’s place before, and nobody should want to go there again. A vital art needs conviction, individualism and passion, not this compilation of clichés.

Our theatre needs young playwrights to entertain us, to burn up the stage, to throw out the lecture theatre plays, to pass by the phonies and bring some life into these dark rooms—instead the young write plays as if looking for High Distinctions. Their dramas are not written to interest audiences but to please theatre administrators, arts bureaucrats, sleeping critics, and friends on grant boards.

Contra the cult of second-ratedness and mendacity there is encouragement for new theatre in places like playwright David Mamet’s recent book Theatre:

This notion of the betterment of humankind by intellectuals is the opposite of show business. It cannot flourish in the free market that is the essence of the human interchange, where an audience assents to pay for the experience of entertainment; it can flourish only where the audience, through ideological bludgeoning or guilt, is offered it as a substitute for entertainment.

At the New Theatre they were playing with Stalinism. It’s taken a while. Burnt by the Sun is an adaptation of the Russian film of the same name by British left-wing playwright Peter Flannery. It played at the National Theatre in London last year. It’s interesting Left theatre which doesn’t beat you over the head.

It’s the Soviet summer of 1936. Bolshevik military hero Colonel Kotov (David Ritchie) is at his dacha. It’s The Cherry Orchard revisited. Kotov is with his younger wife Maroussia (Elly Goodman), and his young daughter (Jordan Warner) and surrounded by a cast of mothball-preserved members of the old society. Mitia (Paul Armstrong), a previous lover of Maroussia, arrives and entertains. But Mitia works for the NKVD and has come to arrest Kotov. After feeding Kotov and his family into the death machine he commits suicide. That’s a false note. In Soviet life he would himself either have later been tumbled into the mincer or survived to be a post-Soviet pensioner nostalgic for the good old days.

Louise Fischer’s direction made full use of designer Tom Bannerman’s sand-coloured playing box. Flooded with light, the almost bare stage was surrounded by light-coloured curtains and similar floor covering with a few basic furniture props. Changing the scene to the riverside, the floor covering was folded back over a piano and, when chairs were placed facing the back wall, we were sunbathing beside the lake. While David Ritchie’s Kotov was believable, Paul Armstrong’s Mitia lacked mystery, threat and much ability to sing—which was an important part of the story.

Given the limited resources of the New Theatre they gave a competent sketch of what the play could be. Early on there was, perhaps, too much Cherry Orchard and too little indication of the rivers of blood that had flowed since 1917, or that our hero, Kotov, was as bloodthirsty as those about to destroy him. After his arrest his last words on stage ask how this happened. The audience politely refrained from suggesting that it all went wrong with the 1917 Bolshevik coup. It also didn’t seem to be the time to mention that his awful fate was what he had been handing out to others since then. Though the film and play both say that he was soon shot, he has surprisingly come back to life, and a sequel to Burnt by the Sun was recently released in Russia.

There was a frisson associated with seeing this play at the New Theatre which, now that the Party’s over, gives the impression of being a decaying bourgeois outpost in Newtown. In the foyer a poster advertised a fund-raising raffle. The first prize was a holiday in Port Douglas.

The New Theatre was founded in 1932 and perhaps one day the comrades will get around to staging a drama set in the New Theatre in the days when its own members were Stalinists to a player. They might even say sorry for supporting tyranny. In 1936 they would have treated Stalin’s victims as criminals and abandoned Kotov and his family to their fates.

The film of Burnt by the Sun is worth looking for, as it offers a far more developed scenario than the theatrical adaptation. Knowing what is coming increases the film’s tension almost unbearably.

Michael Connor is the editor of Quadrant Online.

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