Bad eggs

Hannie Rayson’s new play, Two Brothers, offers a bleak vision of a post-9/11 Australia in which political expediency, packaged and pitched as national security, has triumphed over moral decency and basic human rights.

The eponymous brothers are James ‘Eggs’ Benedict (Garry McDonald) and Tom Benedict (Nicholas Eadie), both members of a privileged class who were educated at an exclusive Melbourne private school.
But there the similarities end. Eggs has become Minister for Home Security, on the fast track to becoming the next Prime Minister; Tom is holding down a $60,000-a-year job as head of an Australian aid agency. Remind you  of anyone?

Into the brothers’ lives comes Hazem Al Ayad (Rodney Afif), an Iraqi who is the sole survivor of an Indonesian fishing boat that sank near Ashmore Reef on Christmas Day, killing 250 men, women and children refugees, including Hazem’s wife and children.

There’s plenty of bad blood between Eggs and Tom, and when Tom (who takes on Hazem’s case for legal asylum) slowly learns the truth about the boat’s sinking, and his brother’s (hence, the government’s) complicity in it, that blood begins to boil.

Two Brothers is a fast-paced play that shifts frequently through many scenes, due in great part to the highly effective revolving set created by designer Stephen Curtis.

Hannie Rayson’s satirical script is charged (and sometimes, perhaps, overcharged) with wit and verbal gags that provide comic relief from the play’s dark themes.

In addition to the nationally prominent names dropped into the dialogue, Melbourne theatre-goers on opening night heard local in-jokes that will presumably be adapted for Sydney audiences when the play moves there later this month.

The plot is tightly structured in the first act, which ends with a powerful atmosphere of suspense engendered by the device of a ringing mobile telephone (a prop used to humorous effect elsewhere in the play).

The second act careens towards farce, which perhaps is the playwright’s intent, as the events it portrays so closely mirror those which actually surrounded the Tampa incident and the sinking of the SIEV?X in 2001, in which 353 asylum seekers drowned.

The inevitable showdown between Eggs and Tom touches upon, but could have more fully explored, the hatred, treachery, jealousy, lies and deceit that can poison families. No one is left undamaged: Eggs’s son Lachlan (Ben Lawson), a naval officer and would-be whistleblower, cannot in the end choose truth over familial loyalty; Tom’s son Harry (Hamish Michael), a victim of his drug dependency, becomes the unwitting trump card in Eggs’s final crushing hand over Tom.

Most pathetic of all is Eggs’s wife Fiona (a difficult role played sympathetically by Diane Craig), who makes a desperate but failed attempt to break away from her husband, realising that she has never even been allowed by Eggs to grieve for their son who died of a drug overdose.

‘I can’t do this,’ she says to Tom’s feisty partner Ange Sidoropoulous (Laura Lattuada), who tells her to leave Eggs and come stay with them. ‘I won’t be the Prime Minister’s wife.’

But in the play’s most farcical scene, Eggs cajoles Fiona into staying by promising: ‘You can live in Kirribilli and I can live in Canberra. I wouldn’t be the only PM to make his own arrangements in Canberra.’
‘You’re bad … you’re bad all the way through,’ Fiona tells him. But then Eggs takes her in his arms and says: ‘Let me love you all the way through.’

It’s hard to hear a line like that uttered by someone with Garry McDonald’s credentials as a comic actor without wanting to giggle. What self-respecting woman would fall for it? Especially after knowing that her husband has been shagging his ‘senior adviser’, the aptly named Jamie Savage (played with cold precision by Caroline Brazier).

But maybe that’s a part of what Hannie Rayson is trying to say in Two Brothers. In a country where status and privilege and power politics in every sphere ultimately prevail over human decency, have we lost our minds? Our hearts?

This is a play about the real presence of evil in the world, and it is the deadly harm wrought by that evil that lingers, like the stench of bad eggs, long after the final curtain. Not the gags. They just make the message a little easier to take.

Two Brothers, presented by Melbourne Theatre Company and directed by Simon Phillips, plays in Melbourne at the Arts Centre Playhouse until 14 May, then tours to the Sydney Opera House from 19 May as part of Sydney Theatre Company’s 2005 season. The production then continues to Canberra, Newcastle, Frenchs Forest and Wollongong, with Tony Llewellyn-Jones as Eggs Benedict. 

Robert Hefner is the assistant editor of Eureka Street.



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