November 13, 2013

Bitterly funny refuge in financial dependency

Adelaide Theatre

Maggie Stone
by Caleb Lewis
State Theatre Company
Space Theatre
Adelaide Festival Centre.
November 12. Tickets $ 25 – $ 65
Bookings: BASS 131 246,
Until November 30 .
Duration : 100 minutes, no interval.

It was Polonius, in Hamlet who said : “Neither a borrower or a lender be/ For loan oft loses both itself and friend.” He’s right, but that’s not how we live in the world. In his astutely incisive, often bitterly funny, new work, Maggie Stone, playwright Caleb Lewis asks : “How do borrowing and lending affect our relationships with others ?” And he doesn’t just mean financial transactions, but the effect of emotional debts; the price of magnanimity and the cost of being beholden.

Maggie Stone is a loans officer in a bank and she is well-named. Both she and her computer like to say no, especially to Sudanese refugees like Prosper Deng who has got himself in a chain of debt that he can’t get out of. Stone’s white Australian prejudices and her casual racism are jarringly apparent, but when, by coincidence, Deng’s wife also comes to request a loan, Stone realises she is part of a chain of social and financial catastrophes and obligations she can’t resist.

Director Geordie Brookman keeps the episodic narrative brisk, further propelled by sound designer, Andrew Howard’s urgent electronic fanfares. Victoria Lamb’s imposing mesh-like wood frame décor abstractly denotes the thorny complexity of the issues faced; as Maggie says at one point: “You can’t fix this with a working bee.”

The performances are excellent. Liberian–born actor Shedrick Yarkpai as Prosper Deng brings gravity to the opening scene and, doubling as the confused teenage son Benny, memorably depicts the turbulence experienced by young traumatized refugees in Australian society. Ansuya Nathan, as the Syrian shopkeeper, Mahira Sadat, reflects different vexations for enterprising immigrants eager to make a new start. Some of Lewis’s characters are more satirically drawn – Mark Saturno as Leo Hermes, the loan shark is an identikit Chopper Read, and Genevieve Mooy brings deft comic precision as Georgina Spack, the well-meaning but clueless friend, blithely looking to fill, and smooth over, cracks that are really chasms.

But at the centre of the production’s success are the two leads. Sara Zwangobani is outstanding as Amath Deng, the resourceful and resolute widow and mother, who is Lewis’s articulate focus for his theme of enforced dependency and the price of gratitude. So too is Kris McQuade, as the case-hardened, unreflective, un-nurtured Maggie. Like Zwangobani, McQuade’s fine performance personalizes, and gives an earthy directness, to the play’s ambitions.

With Caleb Lewis’s inventive, accessible new work, State Theatre, under new management from Geordie and Rob Brookman, concludes a strong season on a high note.

Murray Bramwell

“Bitterly funny refuge in financial dependency” The Australian, November 14, 2013, p.14.

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