Friday, 4 October 2013

Rupert, Melbourne Theatre Company

Murdoch is, there's no doubt, an Australian icon. He's been a major media player in this country for around half a century, he's been spreading his wings internationally for 45 years, and has significant influence on how pretty much any major media story is reported in this country. And nobody's ever written a play directly about him (the closest you get is probably David Hare and Howard Brenton's "Pravda", which specifically concentrated on the period of his life where his UK purchases were expanding, and disguised him as a South African). Until now.

Williamson's play makes the choice to tell pretty much the entire story of Murdoch's adult life, from the perspective of an older Rupert, without apologies. It's inevitably somewhat bit-ish (then he bought this, then he bought that, then he did this business deal, then he met this politician...) but the story flows pretty well (although after the Packers midway through act one, there really aren't any other decent individual antagonists for Rupert to play against - it also helps that the Packers are delightfully caricatured in writing and performance, with Williamson indulging in the theatrical potential of foul language for the first time in a while). The device of having an older Rupert narrating while a younger Rupert enacts the events becomes odd by act two (the play wisely points out that by the time of the events narrated, Rupert's in his 50s - the older Rupert responds by having the younger Rupert engage in more and more physical exercise) so we're never in doubt that this is a very self-serving version of events. It's a far more landscape view of events than we're used to seeing from Williamson - getting out of the middle-class-domestic-comedy niche suits him, and I'd love to see him exploring it further.

Without Lee Lewis' virtuoso staging, this could come dreadfully unstuck - as noted, the events are somewhat repetetive (then again, so's "Candide") - but with the help of Stephen Curtis' simple-but-adaptable design and a versatile ensemble of six playing around sixty characters between them, plus Sean O'Shea's aloof Older Rupert and Guy Edmond's puppy-doggishly eager Younger Rupert, we're never bored. The device at the end of the play of seeing the entire stage stripped back to the bare bones works beautifully in conjunction with Older Rupert's long closing monolouge - visuals perfectly reflecting and enhancing the script.

If it's a flawed work, it's a creatively interesting one, and is a eye-and-mind-catching night out.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

The Cherry Orchard, Melbourne Theatre Company

Simon Stone is the current face of "young Australian Theatre" - he's 29 and has had a meteoric rise to the top of Australian theatre, largely through his productions of classics (signature productions include "Death of a Salesman", "The Wild Duck" and "Thysestes") - starting out at the fringe with the Hayloft project and expanding to acclaimed productions for the big state theatre companies. He's controversial, however, as his approach to classics often tends to de-scale a lot of the accreted assumptions about them (he came notably unstuck when his production of "Salesman" cut the epilogue and the Arthur Miller estate insisted on it being returned) and to return these plays to being active stories told now - with the actors using their own accents, in settings and costumes that appear largely contemporary, and often with sets that are pared back to just a few bare essentials.

His latest, "The Cherry Orchard" is, of course, an adaptation of the Chekhov. I was a late bloomer to Chekhov - his four iconic plays are all largely apparently-plotless stories where the real drama is internal and the key is in the details, And I often wondered, why should I care about these wealthy Russians paying the price of their own feckless living? I've started to come around to him - largely due to stagings that start to take away the remote, "english country house" interpretations of his work - Benedict Andrew's "The Seagull" a few years ago ripped the bandages off my eyes and showed me a play that had ridiculous numbers of telling details hidden just below the surface... and Simon Stone's "The Cherry Orchard" does the same. A ridiculously strong cast brings these complex, flawed characters to perfect life.

One of the keys may be that this respects Chekhov's instruction that the play is a comedy. There's the melencholy, true, but it's not an all-pervasive gloom. And this doesn't come at the expense of the characters, if anything it enhances it. And there are intriguing alternate interpretations that arise - for every Pamela Rabe's Ranevskaya (who perfectly captures her character's over-emotional nature), you get something like Robert Menzies' Gayev (who transforms a charracter who is often portrayed as an amiable, mildy eccentric duffer into something far sadder and funnier, a socially inept, shellshocked man still trying to function in society without fully understanding how it's supposed to work). Steve Mouzakhis' Lopakin is probably the most obvious modification of a character - instead of the russian peasant-made good, we get a second-generation Greek boy who's caught between his knowledge of what has to change and his affection for these people. It's a case where the modification brings us a more direct insight into the character - rather than having to diagram out the social norms of Russian peasantry, we know immediately where people are coming from and can then proceed to engage with them on their own terms.

This is an unusually grand staging for Stone - the full width and height of the Sumner stage is engaged and it's used well, using the distances between characters carefully to capture important emotional information. And the show delivers in doing what Chekhov is supposed to - engage the mind, amuse the wit and break the heart a little.