September 01, 1998

Positives and Negatives

by Paul Rees
Theatre Praxis
Lion Theatre

Reviewed by Murray Bramwell

Sometimes an event occurs which is so extraordinary and complete in its symbolic value that it seems definitively dramatic. The story of Mordechai Vanunu must have seemed so to Adelaide based writer Paul Rees. The Israeli defence worker who photographed evidence of his country’s nuclear capability and then, while hiding out in a wayside chapel in King’s Cross in Sydney, made arrangements to expose the information in The Sunday Times, has all the elements of an anti-hero- or, if you like a hero of conscience.

Vanunu did not seek to gain from the information – or to sell it from one country to another, he wanted it to be made public in the fourth estate, on the grounds that the nuclear threat is only worsened by secrecy and even a people as sinned against as the Jews are not justified in having weapons of mass destruction.

Things ended badly for Vanunu- captured in Rome by the Israeli secret service, interrogated and sentenced for treason he has already spent eleven years in solitary confinement.

Paul Rees has put together a story we remember – or think we remember ( I realise how many details I didn’t know)- back in front of our eyes. His play, Morde, is called a philosophical spy thriller but the experiences of its hero – or more accurately, anti-hero- keenly remind us of the harsh consequences meted out for an idealistic action.

Events open in Sydney- indeed, the Australian connection is fascinating- but Rees has a problem with levels of seriousness. To lighten the telling the characters in the chapel are made comic. Father Peter McKnight is a well-meaning duffer trying to jazz up his religious discussion groups with philosophical discussions. His volunteers are a type A accountant named Tony, and Gale, a gushy reformed addict. In among all this we find Morde and an American traveler, Samantha.

Nic Hurcombe’s split set design consists of two contructions which cross like swords. One section is a stretch of diaphonous fabric which stretches down to the table used for meetings in the chapel, the other is a sloping steel mesh catwalk which forms the perimeter of the cell in which Morde is being interrogated. The action, expertly lit by Mark Pennington alternates between the two acting areas.

As Morde, Syd Brisbane is well cast- especially in the still photos reminding us of glimpses of Vanunu in custody holding up the palm of his hand to reveal a scrawled message giving details of his capture- but much of what he does is to look agitated. The play does not give us many clues to his personality, his motivations, or even what consequences he expected for his actions. The relationship with Samantha, played interestingly by Lucy Slattery, is nicely ambiguous- we don’t really know her status, even when she is brought to Vanunu’s cell apparently as a fellow captive.

As Father Peter, Patrick Frost is confined to young codgerisms while Marlo Grocke and Geoff Revell double as Gale and Tony as well as the good torturer- bad torturer combo in the jail. The varieties of political cruelty are hinted at – particularly by Revell – but as elsewhere the text doesn’t take us far enough.

Because of the split stage, director Catherine Carter does not always succeed in creating interesting variations in what become predictable switches in action. The shading of the characterisations is also unresolved but there the difficulty lies with Paul Rees’ creditable but undeveloped script. It is as though the strength of the play’s idea is also its difficulty. Vanunu’s own actions seem to be ready-made for a play but in fact there are real gaps and unanswered questions and the playwright needs to enter the world of the play and invent what is missing. Paul Rees has perhaps been too scrupulous to do this and the result is that, while we are reminded not to let these events drift from our minds, we neither have enough of the real Vanunu nor of Morde as a creation.

The Adelaide Review, September, 1998.

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