October 01, 1993

Local Works

The Administrator
by Charles Jury
Little Theatre
University of Adelaide

The Grip and
The Grown-Up’s Playroom
by David Paul Jobling

by Melissa Reeves
Red Shed Company
Red Shed

Reviewed by Murray Bramwell

“The story/Is of two famous friends, Pythias and Damon,/The love between them, and the effect that had/On Dionysius, tyrant of the city/Syracuse, BC -say three ninety-one,/Or thereabouts- and the enemy of Carthage,/ A barbarous city. Broadly it may be stated,/No archaology and no scholarship/Infect this play. The remote setting’s chosen/Because the theme’s intended to be treated/Poetically- an old device…”

How better than to use Charles Jury’s own prologue to The Administrator for a thumbnail plotline. This tragi-comedy, written by Jury in the early 1950s, was revived last month as part of a series of readings and other activities marking the centenary of the writer’s birth.

It is an ironic piece in sinewy blank verse – particularly adroit in the speeches by Dionysius, the ruler so given to pragmatism that he fails to notice the short step to duplicity. In wry contrast is the idealised love of Damon and Pythias each vying with the other to sacrifice all.

In this moved reading, directed by Graham Nerlich, Jury’s elegant narrative comes readily to life. Much is due to Tom Burton’s fluent urbanity as Dionysius and creditable work by Marcus Ansems as Pythias. Courteney Thackray is also useful as Philoxenus the poet-narrator whose ascerbic observations like those of Dionysius bring a crisp directness to Jury’s work. I’m not sure this presentation needed chitons and sandals. The setting may be archaic but the sentiments are strikingly current.

The same might have been true for David Paul Jobling’s The Grip. We are informed by the program that it is told with the use of traditional story-telling techniques but Catherine Carter’s ponderous sweeps of the arm and unvarying sepulchral delivery makes this some ghastly parody of Listen with Mother. The tale is of Nick the patriarch with his nasty little axe, his woman, signified by a diaphanous shawl and their daughter, represented by a cluster of coloured ribbons. Nick is a complete shit who rapes his daughter, axes his wife and sides with angels and holy men. Then he marries his daughter and they have another set of little ribbons. Her mum -that’s the daughter- gets burnt as a witch after making sure that Nick gets his.

I am being unfair to the mythopoeic resonances of the work but The Grip is such a stew of gender taboos and sacred groves and fairies and angels and witches and mystical oozings and groanings that it defeats its purpose. It’s all too earnest and little of it is either fresh or illuminating. We are told we can take the story home to pass on to others. No thanks. I’ll stick to Angela Carter.

The Grown-Up’s Playroom has far more going for it. This is because David Paul Jobling takes the piece into the realm of performance art and makes theatre of his own case. His widely publicised dismissal as an artist-in-schools allegedly because he revealed his HIV status is explored by means of two alter egos – Catherine Carter playing the morbid Ophelia and Peter J McGill as the puckish optimist, Robin Goodfellow . But it is most poignantly expressed by Jobling himself. There is a commanding dignity and disarming wryness in Jobling’s stage presence and his integrity and courage are beyond question.

More’s the pity then that the piece runs too long and gets bogged in needless verbiage. There is an extended and heavy-handed comparison with the Chamberlains, victims also of public vilification, and a tortuous wordplay on prophets and loss by Robin Goodfellow that is too awful to think about. These New Works cover important ground and represent the work of a commited artist. Unfortunately, that is not enough for them to succeed.

It is not quite two years ago since I reviewed the premiere season of Sweetown. Now it has returned to the Red Shed prior to a northern tour I find myself as positive ae before. While we cannot really claim Melissa Reeves as a South Australian writer her work with Troupe and the Red Shed has been pivotal in her development. For the Shed she wrote In Cahoots and Miracle Mum but it is in Sweetown that her strengths are most evident

Set in a small country town in the mid 1960s, Sweetown revolves around its civic endeavours- Apex, CWA, the History Society and Women’s Auxilliary. There were never any Aboriginal settlements in Sweetown, they confidently assert to enquiring outsiders. Then memories start filtering back. For Jack Greg for instance. That place out of town called Captain’s Flat was thought to be the site a massacre last century so people start to investigate Sweetown’s buried history. The decision to set up a memorial to the victims has the effect for some of breaking out of a slumber, for others it calls for even more rigid repression.

With gentle humour, rich character work and a shrewd text Melissa Reeves examines the way we construct history. The satire is broad – more than a touch of Barry Humphries and Shirley Purvis here – but Sweetown is also a kind of dream play with expressionist devices like the ghost and the night reveries.

Under the assured direction of Cath McKinnon the eight performers breathe life into a whole community- kids, country squires, rural ockers, exasperated wives and vigorous old matriarchs. Sally Hildyard is again exceptional, particularly as the schoolteacher forgetting her mnemonics, so also is Peter Finlay as the florid Alan Werther, Alex Hulse as the dithery Ralph and Joey Kennedy as the dotty Coral. Tim Maddocks’ cycloramic set in corrugated iron and sunburnt primary colours is enhanced by Karen Noris’s warm lighting and music by Justin Posa and Scott Rowe. It is splendid to see Sweetown in revival. It is a fine play and shows the Red Shed in excellent fettle.

The Adelaide Review, No. 119, October, 1993. P.45

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