Theatre

Love Song to a Dead Stalinist

We are minutes into Act Two of Vere (Faith) by John Doyle. Centre stage there is a thick puddle of soft, tan-coloured excreta, and the play hasn’t been directed by Barrie Kosky. This new work, first staged in Adelaide, is a co-production of the State Theatre Company of South Australia and the Sydney Theatre Company. It’s an untroubling play of battling clichés which comes with an attractive poster.

The Dunstan Playhouse in Adelaide is a smallish, comfortable theatre. Playwright, actor, broadcaster and comedian John Doyle’s father had Alzheimer’s and Doyle has dedicated his play to him. The playwright begins his play about dementia, which then seems to slip his mind. He also weaves in the life and death of the “father of archaeology” Vere Gordon Childe, whose Stalinism is lost in a fog of playwright amnesia. Though Doyle believes Vere (Faith) is about religion, science and being human, it turns out to be just another outing for oldies: two hours of Radio National with actors and jokes.

Act One opens in a university staffroom. The set, by Pip Runciman, is simple. At the back is a wall topped with small windows, a door and a clock. In the foreground are three desks. The playing space houses four science academics including the head of the department, Vere (Paul Blackwell). Not all the academics get a desk of their own. In a real university each would have an office, and their meeting place would be the common room. Vere’s desk holds souvenirs of his life, including a bottle of 1960s Grange. The desk-littered staffroom allows the director, Sarah Goodes, to move her actors from one point to another in an attempt to make this festival of talk look like a dramatic performance.

The play begins with Vere, an eccentric academic wrapped in black gown, coming forward and talking directly to us as though we are his students. It’s the end of the year and he is planning to attend an overseas conference. Paul Blackwell’s Vere is an attractive cliché, a smiling eccentric Oxford don, and that’s part of the problem. Gears seem to have slipped and he is a generation out of place. He is a Baby Boomer but the writing has borrowed a character from an earlier anglophile generation—a time traveller from a 1950s Ealing comedy.

Into the staffroom comes Vere’s doctor (Ksenja Logos). As colleague Kate (Rebecca Massey) guards the door for privacy the doctor tells Vere that he has dementia and will very shortly lose control of his mind. Giving the medical diagnoses in this setting brings the doctor into Vere’s world. In real life the news would have plummeted Vere and his family into the doctor’s world. Though it may be flattering for Vere to have an attractive young doctor urging him to call her at any hour, the play avoids the horribleness of suddenly finding oneself in a maze of doctor’s appointments, waiting and waiting in waiting rooms, drugs with side effects doctors never feel themselves, meeting caring carers who are never seen again, and the blackness of it all. She leaves and the rest of the act, which runs for about an hour, brings together the three other academics who share the room, a young postgraduate student, and the vice-chancellor who drops in for an end-of-year chat.

Matthew Gregan plays Mike, the youngest academic and a brilliant member of the department who does not seem to have qualified for a desk of his own. He also picks his nose, examines the finds and wipes his fingers on his trousers. By the end of the act he has agreed to give up this pleasant habit. He also stutters a bit and acts as a human calculator. A collection of mannerisms in stained trousers.

At least forty-five minutes of clever, donnish dialogue could be cut from Act One and the loss would only have been felt by the snoozers, in their comfortable seats, on this warm and pleasant Adelaide afternoon. The conversations are show-off science, show-off history. Close your eyes and you could be listening to Robyn Williams and a collection of Left chatterers.

Postgraduate student Gina (Matilda Bailey), comes in with a first edition copy of Vere Gordon Childe’s How Labour Governs which has been signed by the author and Herbert Vere Evatt—as well as being a remarkable, and wealthy, book collector she also knows who these people were. In a charming move, which will no doubt assist her academic results, she asks the third great Vere to sign. It’s a contrived set-up which allows the author to Wikipedia us with a potted bio of Childe fattened up with an academic round of trivial pursuits about the man which rather blunderingly gives the audience all the author wants us to know about his life. Childe’s probable suicide in the Blue Mountains in 1957 is one of the elements Doyle is forcing into the play.

Geoff Morrell plays a hands-on vice-chancellor who has a commanding presence and heavy paws which wander exploringly over the upper construction of the young postgrad. Try that on a university campus and either the young postgrad would quickly have letters after her name and be fast-tracked towards a teaching position and tenure, or the VC would equally quickly be an ex-VC with years of meandering trials ahead of him. Rebecca Massey’s Kate, a foul-mouthed lecturer with a brain of gold, is another of Doyle’s collection of mannerisms without focus. It’s a long, unpromising first act, a single-scene word-inflated radio broadcast. And in its depiction of a dreamily old-fashioned male-dominated department it presents a very unrealistic and un-feminist-influenced view of university life.

The set for Act Two is slightly confusing. On either side of the stage are walls with a row of three or four varnished doors. At first glance it seems like a wide corridor receding into the distance. On one side of the stage is a dining table and chairs and on the other, at the very front, is a large telescope. This is the dining room in Vere’s son’s apartment—a location necessary for the play’s contrived ending. The visual effect, with all those doors, is slightly jarring. All the actors, except Paul Blackwell, play different roles. Yalin Ozucelik, who was the fourth academic in the earlier act, becomes Vere’s son Scott who lives here with his wife, doctor in Act One, and son, nose-picker in previous role.

Vere again opens the Act by talking to the audience. Time has passed and dementia rules. Blackwell gives a moving performance. It’s a moment of agony and when he walks away we see the pool of excreta on the floor. Audience shock turns to laughter as the family try to clean up the mess and avoid the stink before the arrival of dinner guests. Snot in Act One, brown bodily function in Act Two: this is Andy Griffiths for adults. Griffiths writes books and stages productions for children about poo, farts, snot and vomit, and we wonder why public behaviour is increasingly crass. Sydney Theatre Company publicity writes that this is “A black comedy brimming with new ideas”. Try, “A brown comedy overflowing with old ideas”.

The visitors are the family of the girl that Vere’s grandson Michael, ex-nose-picker Mike, wants to marry. Actress Matilda Bailey has gone from bright-brained PhD student in Act One to bright-red-lipped dumb fiancée in Act Two. Ditto dumbness for her accompanying parents, Rebecca Massey and Geoff Morrell. He is a minister and, as you would expect, the Christians have come to dine with the lions. The God-worrying family are an appalling trio: hypocrites, small-minded, untrustworthy, the family of Dumb, Dumber and Even Dumber. Not only are they horrible but minister father doesn’t recognise the name Lloyd Rees when he asks how much the painting hanging on the wall is worth. This bit of snobbery is a bit rich coming from John Doyle who had never heard of V. Gordon Childe until only a few years ago—Tim Flannery told him who he was. The minister makes cringe-inspiring remarks about art—out in the real world ordinary folks have long been far too intimidated ever to open their mouths about such a dangerous subject. But this is a play about modern Left platitudes and snobbery, and a new and very up-to-date sign of their sheer awfulness is that Mr and Mrs Minister are climate sceptics. Attacking commonsense questioning of uncertain and sometimes manipulated science is a shame-making demonstration of playwright intolerance.

In Auntie Mame the opportunity to put down the pretentious fiancée and her family is carried out in a scene; here we get a full act of Mortein smugness sprayed on the low-flying, clumsy Christians. Vere wanders in and out of the downwardly spiralling dinner party, sometimes very sensible, sometimes in fear and panic. He is given lots of opportunities to put down the unpalatable Christians with wit and donnish contempt. Dementia: the Left’s secret weapon for winning the culture wars. The minister makes an attempt, fought off by Vere’s son, to grab him for Jesus. And the emphasis in this religious bashing is directed not generally but specifically towards Jesus.

Preparing for play’s end, the cast members rush off through the doors and Vere is left alone. He is suffering and torn apart. He walks towards the back of the stage apartment, climbs up on a chair and falls to his death. Through a slightly mistimed blackout we see him stepping away. Adding intensity to his end, the set comes to life. After the momentary darkness the doors all open in one smooth movement and a new yellowish light dramatically plays on the scene. It’s a very nice moment, but so contrived. The set should have supported all the play, but it only works for this last moment.

Would a real-life Vere, in the moment of lucidity the play suggests, really have thrown himself from the apartment of the son he loves? Would he really have left others to deal with the horror of his mangled body? Would he have left his son to deal with the guilt? The death is a far too neat ending to a real-life problem that must seem unending to its victims.

Vere means faith, says Doyle. It also means truth. The faith of and the truth about V. Gordon Childe was Stalinism. Khrushchev’s “secret speech” and the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 surely contributed to his 1957 suicide. A letter he wrote just before his death which was published long after is printed in the program. In it he says, “I have lost faith in all my old ideals.” Childe was a Stalinist and possibly a secret member of the Communist Party. It is astounding that with all the play tells us about Childe no one stops to ask how the great man, who is nonchalantly mentioned as a Marxist, could have supported such brutality. He was even a tourist in Hell and visited the Soviet Union in 1935, 1945, 1953 and 1956. An eccentric academic who supported a regime even more murderous than Hitler’s and who, in his own life, lacked the courage to speak out when he observed the flaws and deceits in the brutal Soviet system might make a genuine drama. Doyle links Childe’s death with fear of approaching dementia but that does not seem to have been the case at all, for his letter concludes, “Life ends best when one is happy and strong.”

Childe’s letter is more interesting than the play. He was sixty-five and wrote of the old as a burden on society and suggested that talk of the old offering their experience and skills to society was a very bad idea and “liable to become a gerontocracy—the worst possible form of leadership”. His suggestion of euthanasia for the over-sixty-fives didn’t seem to be a theme of Doyle’s drama. Part of his letter was absolutely pertinent. He wrote of the old: “new ideas, original combinations of old knowledge, come rarely if at all. Generally old authors go on repeating the same old theses, not always in better chosen language.” Applied to the geriatric Leftism which crushes our intellectual life, it is entirely apt.

Subsidising our major companies and keeping them afloat by selling subscriptions so that people buy tickets a year before a play is presented contributes to keeping in place this outwardly bright and polished theatre which is intellectually conformist, reactionary and Left, and which trundles along because it does not depend on the excitement of new work written for a lively mass audience. Cue for the entry onstage of a new writers’ theatre without the platitudes and snobbishness of the old.

 

Vere (Faith) played at the Dunstan Playhouse from October 12 to November 2, and is playing at the Sydney Opera House from November 6 to December 7.

 

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