New beaut theatre

Australian theatre is one of the great heartbreaks of Australian cultural life—when it’s bad it’s so very bad. It was Ingmar Bergman who said that if you thought life was going too fast, go to church, go to the theatre. Well, if Australian theatre is getting better at the moment, it is because it has taken stock of its own existence in a world where it can sometimes seem irrelevant or incapable of equalling the ‘best practice’ of Australian film or television. It has decided to give the public what it wants by showing off its stars.

When Sigrid Thornton (with Marcus Graham) did The Blue Room for the Melbourne Theatre Company (MTC), and subsequently at Her Majesty’s in Perth, she broke all records. It makes sense that famous faces from film and TV should be seen on our stages, not least when they are legitimate sources of national pride because they are fine performers.

So the spate of ‘star’ productions at the MTC—featuring Geoffrey Rush, Guy Pearce, David Wenham, Wendy Hughes and Phillip Quast—has been a step up. Fame is not necessarily a testament to talent, but it is harder to miscast a star, and there is also pressure to ensure that the supporting cast is good.

Cabaret may be an exception that proves the rule, though the worst thing that can be said about Lisa McCune as Sally Bowles is that there are other people in the cast who are much better.

When Christopher Isherwood saw the great Julie Harris in John Van Druten’s adaptation, I am a Camera, he said she was more like the original of Sally Bowles than anything he had got on the page. Sam Mendes’ production is restlessly energised, with sexual decadence less an insinuation than a rich rank aroma in the auditorium. There are lightning changes of mood and a good deal of cheek without losing a sense of how portentous this pantomime world is. It is, at one point, a world with a swastika on its bare bottom, but it gets away with this because the enormity of what’s happening is never allowed to recede.

A good number of people will have seen The Goat, even though it played in MTC’s small
theatre, the Fairfax. This may have had more to do with Wendy Hughes’ casting as the wife and mother than with either the abiding reputation of the author of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? or any general interest in bestiality, but who knows?

The bestiality motif (husband in love with goat) perhaps carries both too much and too little weight, but this does not stop The Goat from being a tough, viscerally intense play about a happy marriage—betrayed or immeasurably complicated by a love that does not seem human and that therefore seems to degrade all human things.

Wendy Hughes and Philip Quast are excellent as the husband and wife, but it is Kate Cherry’s production that gives The Goat its ring of authenticity.

There were times during Simon Phillips’ production of Hannie Rayson’s Inheritance when one longed for the austerities of Cherry’s approach. It was Cherry who managed the ambitious, freewheeling structure of Rayson’s previous play, Life After George, with its time and locale shifts and its different rhetorics. Such Shakespearean flights on invisible wings are not for Simon Phillips, who invests in on-stage cars and outback sets that look like something from an 1950s amateur light opera production of Oklahoma.

Some approximation of this was probably inevitable. Rayson’s play was conceived of as a rural epic of quasi-novelistic sprawl. It’s the story of two bush families, connected by two sisters, now matriarchs and grandmothers. One family has inherited the farm and the other has bought a pub with its inheritance money and now finds itself going broke. The pressure to edit the material into two-and-a-half hours may have lost some of the circumstantial texture, and made the play look melodramatic and fraught with coincidences. It needed a more leisurely telling.

With the ‘big’ characters, who push along the action like a cartwheel to the scaffold of execution, the results are mixed. That grand trouper Geraldine Turner is arresting no matter what she does, but she’s all on one or two notes as the wife/Pauline Hanson figure. Steve Bisley, on the other hand, is consistently terrific as the bushie. He has a leathery power and a wound-up reasonableness behind it that make his final terrible freakouts absolutely credible. This is a fine, dangerous performance.

Inheritance remains an ambitious play even when it’s given this kind of hit-and-miss half-life. We can only hope for the film or the telemovie, or that someone should direct Inheritance who has enough balls to trust Rayson when she’s good.

Peter Craven is the editor of Quarterly Essay and Best Australian Essays.



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