One day, two plays, two families. The first is a matinee performance of Tribes by Nina Raine. Young man is sitting on a chair, which is on a table, which is at the front of the stage at the Sumner Theatre. He is reading a book—that’s a quaint touch. The early audience looks intently to see if he knows how to turn the pages, he does. Time comes to get things moving and the table starts to descend. We are all waiting for him to step onto the stage; when what was the table top aligns with the floor, he does. Other bits of the stage with the furnishings of a house are moving and coming forward as the stage is peopled and the lighting intensifies. It’s a family at dinner.
On stage action, loud voices, lots of four-letter words. This is the way new plays start. It is so ordinary and un-confronting that in about ninety seconds the elderly lady beside me, and we are sitting in the second row, is peacefully asleep. She snoozes (I keep checking) and then wakes to add her applause when interval comes. The family seasoning their sustenance with obscenities are eating together, therefore this is a middle-class family. Working-class would be same language, but grazing individually out of food-bags and Styrofoam.
This is an English play about deafness, and family things. There is mother and father, two sons and a daughter. Older boy and girl have moved back home, the younger son is deaf. This is about deafness and the politics of signing. I don’t know anything about deafness, and am not at all concerned. Therefore, I find this interesting. Why don’t Australian playwrights get this? Time after time our writers bore us out of our seats with plays about subjects we all know too much about and inject us with opinions too widely shared to excite either controversy or interest.
The father, Brian Lipson, is played as capital-G Ghastly. He is clownish and hyperactive, an angry stick figure. Some restraint in the performance would have made him more believable. He is an intellectual who writes books about language. He rampages over the stage. He is noisy, bullying, egotistical, annoying and played at full food-spraying volume. Playwright Nina Raine is the daughter of poet Craig Raine. Obviously this obscene parent is absolutely nothing like her real father, she says. Like the other males in this play there is something unreal about the creation. It’s a portrayal of attitude and arrogance, entertaining but not a real man.
Deaf son Billy, played by Luke Watts, who has performed in Australian Theatre of the Deaf productions, meets a girl, Sylvia (Alison Bell), who teaches him to sign and with whom he leaves home. For some reason this sends his brother Daniel (David Paterson), who is writing a thesis and been ditched by a girlfriend, into a serious mental breakdown. He hears voices, not the plugged-in iPhone sort, resumes his childhood stutter, and kisses Sylvia. He also smokes dope, which is bad, although the family seem to have no qualms about storing lashings of cheerful anti-depressants on the sideboard. Erudite mother, Julia Grace, keeps house, irons and cooks, picks up the family detritus, and is writing a crime novel. She is interesting to watch for she brings on stage that unusual something that touches an audience. She imparts a truly useful piece of information. Agatha Christie wrote her novels, picked her villain at the end, and then went back and added the clues. Daughter Beth (Sarah Peirse) is unwanted by any lover and sings opera, poorly. She doesn’t have much to do in the play except act jealous when her deaf brother is written about in the Guardian.
Nina Raine worked at the Royal Court as an assistant director and has been a director. She can amuse and understands theatre. At one point the family are posed on one side of the stage directing their attention inwards towards Billy. They freeze, and the audience catches their emotion. For a marvellously tight moment there is that shared experience between us and them that sometimes makes theatre a passionate experience. Later in the story Billy gave up talking and communicated with his family only in sign language, which they didn’t understand. Sylvia, and a sometimes assisting electronic surtitle above the stage, translated. Billy signed, Sylvia responded, and when she slowed or failed to speak, the family members urged her to translate what he was saying. Their frustration and excitement exactly caught the feeling of the audience. Maybe that electronic signage should be added as a character, as sometimes it helpfully translated the language and body language on the stage into the character’s real thoughts. Sylvia, who was born hearing and is becoming deaf, wears a slash of bright, bright red lipstick which highlights her role as Billy’s speaking voice. Sylvia complains that as her hearing deteriorates so does her ability to speak clearly, and actress Alison Bell’s voice subtly changes during the course of the play, adding discordant notes. It’s a skilful piece of performance and there is a program credit to the voice and dialogue coach Anna McCrossin-Owen—a plaudit seems appropriate for them both.
It’s a big stage and director Julian Meyrick uses the space to add life and interest to the performance. The scene where Billy communicates with his family in sign and Sylvia interprets could have been a flat talkie-talkie piece of dull vision with frozen actors batting words to and fro. Instead Meyrick has Sylvia, one vital focus of our attention, move during the scene from one part of the stage to another, thus shifting the arrangement of the actors who must turn to follow her and in so doing giving the audience a new visual angle. What could have been words and rooted-to-the-floor actors becomes an interesting theatrical development. Elsewhere brother Daniel and Sylvia are smoking (real herbal cigarettes). Daniel hears a noise and hides their cigarettes but he also runs across the stage in some fear of being caught out by his parents. Hiding the cigarettes may be normal but the sudden action tells us about the breaking down of Daniel’s character and his regression from adulthood into unreason.
Somewhere in the first part of the play I noticed that some of the furniture had small stickers attached. Curious. In the second half there came a time when Chinese-language-learning father wandered about and as he talked put stickers with Chinese characters on various items. This is only worth mentioning because we have probably all endured performances where the characters tell each other things they presumably know in order to inform the audience:
Son: Dad’s learning Chinese out of a book and his Apple. He’s writing the names of things in Chinese and sticking them on the furniture.
Daughter (second time in case we missed it): Oh, here we go again. Dad’s learning Chinese from his laptop and is putting labels with Chinese names on the furniture.
Son (third time in case we’re really stupid): Looks like Dad’s putting those Chinese names on the furniture again so he’ll remember what they’re called.
Here, though, the action is unaccompanied by words. Curiosity may have been raised, as it was in me, by the stickers. When the little problem for the audience is resolved it is done so without a word of dialogue even as it tells us more about the character of the Father. Shut-up-and-show-us can be more satisfying for the audience than the usual overflow of language.
Towards the end of the play there is reconciliation, sort of. Brother Daniel (the one fallen apart) hugs brother Billy (the deaf one). When they do, Daniel, in bare feet, comes close to the other actor and they embrace. They are so close that Daniel has his toes on his brother’s feet. The director, Julian Meyrick, contributes on cultural matters to the Age. I wondered if it was a secret Fairfax toe-shake, like the Masons do in movies. Just a theory. Moving on, from his toes to his antipodes, actor David Paterson has a very pleasant and distinctive speaking voice.
Came nightfall and another family on stage. I was early at the Melbourne Arts Centre. The theatre foyers were filled with chatter and animation. There were two other performances in other theatres and they began half an hour before mine was due to start. Miriam Margolyes was doing Dickens’ Women in one and the Australian Ballet was in the other. The ballet audience was firmly told by frequent announcements that if they were not in their expensive seats by curtain rise they would be locked out until interval. My play, The Seed, started at 8.00 p.m. and by just after 7.30 the foyer had emptied. Where minutes before there had been excited groups of people there was now no one. Where I was, the area was completely deserted. I began to wonder if I was in the right place. Then slowly a handful of people appeared. This did not seem a good omen for The Seed and then, as we came in, the ushers said that if we wanted to change seats to do so as there was plenty of room. The theatre was the pleasantly small Fairfax Studio. I looked at my program. The play was about the IRA, the Vietnam War and Agent Orange. I said a little word. You see, when I bought my ticket I had chosen the play because it was by an Australian writer, Kate Mulvany, and being about a family reunion seemed an interesting comparison with Raine’s Tribes. If I had known that it involved anything about the IRA and the Vietnam War I would have stayed away, for those words promised a voyage into Platitude Land. I wasn’t wrong.
In the program the author talked about her play. She spoke of the Vietnam vets: “These people had been sitting in silence for too long. The spirit of that Anzac legend had warped and that stiff upper-lip had instead been sewn shut by the hand of politics.” The Seed showed every sign of being a weed.
Man near me, in a voice that projected well in the small theatre, estimated that the place was about 20 per cent full. As one of the walking wounded (I walked out at interval) those 80 per cent missing in action were the lucky ones. The play was late starting. Man near me, again, said they were probably hoping more people would come. He made me feel guilty. I had been silently thinking they were late because the actors didn’t want to go on. In this theatre the large playing space was at floor level and the audience sat in raised rows of seats looking down on it. The stage was large and bare. Around the sides were piled cardboard packing boxes, an armchair and a couch, several other pieces of furniture, and a rolled-up carpet.
Play finally began. In the blackout you could see the three actors taking their places. Suddenly bright lights flashed in our eyes and some loud noises. Yes, another sign that the play you are about to see is in trouble. Over on the far side of the stage Danny (Tony Martin) has climbed a ladder. Bright light circles him and he acts. It’s all stage sweat and curses as he replays an incident when he was young, had stolen some cigarettes and been caught in a barbed wire fence which ripped his flesh and prevented him escaping. As he acts out pain and suffering his daughter, the narrator Rose (Sara Gleeson) comes forward in the midst of this and with self-satisfaction poetically tells us what is happening, had happened, to her father. RIP another Australian play. The fine writing of this playwright is the supermarket-pink-icing-language of the internet poet. I check the reviews afterwards and find that some critics have praised the writing. Oh God. Incidentally, in Sydney the pleased-with-herself female role was played by the author herself.
Move on a bit and over there Danny’s eighty-year-old father, played by Max Gillies, comes to life and starts moving the furniture. As we watched, Mr Gillies rolled the carpet across the stage and pushed the armchair and couch into place. He even had to go behind them to trigger the special locks that stopped them sliding around the stage. I can’t believe that I’ve paid over eighty dollars to sit here watching Max Gillies shift props. Don’t these theatres have unions?
The play lurched into the present and father and daughter stood on one side of the stage. They were at Heathrow, they had just flown in from Australia. They lived in Geraldton. She’s bright, he’s not. They were going to Nottingham. But they didn’t go anywhere; they talked. They told us all the things that we had to know and which they surely already knew. There were pauses. Finally they moved forward to the front of the stage. Now they were in Nottingham. Am I boring you? Imagine being there. Supposedly now outside Danny’s father’s house, they discussed Nottingham Forest, Robin Hood, sex and procreation in the forest. I can’t remember if Rose talked about crayfish, she might have. They didn’t go in, they talked and paused and talked. If anyone in this play thinks those pauses were intriguing they should have sat in the audience. I doubt that most people sitting in the dark were blown away by the artistry. In the forced waiting they were probably wondering if anyone would notice if they clicked on their phones and checked for text messages and missed calls.
Finally, daughter, father and grandfather were together. The advertised family reunion was under way. It’s their birthday—all three share the same anniversary. On this fifth of November Grandfather produces Christmas crackers. They pull them and wear the paper crowns. Gillies plays the old man as a caricature, his performance has nothing to do with a living character. Angry, somewhat dull, vicious and yet as much a dummy as the straw-stuffed effigy of Guy Fawkes that is brought onstage. So this, the central part of the act, plays as two people on a couch talking to a third in an armchair. This may be north of England, but it isn’t Parkinson. The conversation is annoying, the writer’s word games are repetitious and silly. Sons and brothers are about to arrive, but Godot-like never do and never will because we know the cast list only names these three actors. The young woman in this autobiographical play is a self-satisfied annoyance—being a journalist is hardly an excuse. At one point she waxes lyrical (if that sounds like a dated cliché you’ve got the play’s atmosphere) about—Geraldton crayfish. Then there’s her other bit along the lines that the Catholic Church is divided into two parts—one part fucks kids (I am quoting) and the other kills them. I think she repeated this in case we missed it. Another gutless attack on the Catholic Church in a posh subsidised theatre. Wake me when the imam calls.
On stage there is obscene language, suggestions of violence, supposedly brave but really yawn-making conventional political statements, nice things about crayfish and nasty things about Catholics. Advertising promised “An explosive tale of humour, heartbreak and family history.” All this, and yet the director was too afraid to have the characters light and smoke a cigarette. They were produced, even moved towards the lips, but never lit. Our culture has gone from Marlboro Man to Kotex Girl in a few fearful years.
Neighbourhood fireworks for Guy Fawkes Night are represented by sound effects suggesting a mini-Dresden outside. Father, who has already had two fits since arriving “home”, cowers at every bang. This probably hints at a second act sermon on the Vietnam War. Pretentious pauses, bright lights in our faces, furniture movements by elderly gentlemen, obscene language and drug references, loud sound effects and actors having fits, do not make good theatre without the presence of a sound script. The son et lumière projected over the play is to divert us from noticing that the structure beneath is a ruin. This was not something produced by the local university’s creative writing course, it was a play commissioned by the Belvoir Theatre, Sydney. It has been well reviewed in performance. It has been played twice at Belvoir, toured Australia, won the Best Independent Production in the 2007 Sydney Theatre Awards, and this performance was by the Melbourne Theatre Company. In a commercial theatre it would have died. Government subsidy is the preservation order that keeps theatrical renovators out and keeps this distressed wing of our shoddy theatre culture standing.
At interval I did the sensible thing. It was raining outside. The tram driver, coming from St Kilda, used the PA system to introduce himself and wish us all a pleasant trip on his tram. The passengers giggled. That’s entertainment.