October 01, 2001

Causes and Karma

Life After George
by Hannie Rayson

Melbourne Theatre Company

Reviewed by Murray Bramwell

Since its first performances in January last year Hannie Rayson’s MTC commission, Life After George, has had an impressive trajectory. There were extended seasons in Melbourne and numerous awards and nominations including the Miles Franklin, a stint at the Brisbane Festival and now, since July, a sixteen town whistlestop tour from North Queensland to Launcestoun.

It is not hard to see the play’s appeal – Rayson, like David Williamson, writes a kind of value-added boulevard comedy. There is plenty of humour and sizzle in the licensed misbehaviour in the story of a university academic and his three wives but, as Williamson has also done in Don’s Party, The Department , Dead White Males and The Perfectionist, there is, as well, a more ambitious investigation of the ideology and ethics behind the comedy of manners.

In Professor Peter George, Hannie Rayson has created a charismatic, exuberant man who turns ideas into energy. He is an archetype of the Socratic thinker and the social hedonist. The trouble is he is also a cliché. The misbehaving academic has had a mighty good run on the stage from Butley to Third World Blues. And in fiction even more so. Malcolm Bradbury did his vicious best to sink him in The History Man, David Lodge has made a whole career taking a more Chaucerian perspective. This is not say that we didn’t know such people back in the olden days, or that a version of them doesn’t still exist. The trouble for me is that the cliché of freewheeling, freeloving intellectuals dragged a lot of very creditable ideas down with them.

Peter George is an historian who has lived 20th century history. He was there in Berkeley, he was there at the Sorbonne in Paris, 1968. He is a working class hero from Newcastle on Tyne who believes in the power of the people and freely exploits ideas as aphrodisiac. He is married to Beatrix , a young English art historian when they migrate to Melbourne in 1970. There he meets Lindsay , a postgraduate who is reading marxism and feminism. That marriage of academic true minds is then supplanted by Poppy, a postmodern culture theorist who also works in publishing. He has children – the play focuses on daughter, Ana, in her late twenties and not thriving in the long shadow cast by domineering parents. All of these women gather again for George’s funeral. He is dead at fifty eight, killed piloting a small plane that has flown, you might say, too close to the sun.

Director Kate Cherry, with designer Richard Roberts, has kept the staging portable and simple. The opening scene has a coffin centre stage and the principals are briefly introduced before a scrim curtain reveals the mainstage set – a large room in sandstone university beige with blackwood bay windows, a large table and a studiously long library ladder. David Murray’s lighting is creamy, especially so in the flashback scenes.

The performances are variable. Deadline pressures have meant that I have attended the final preview and things may well lift in the season itself. In the unsympathetic role of Lindsay, the academic turned middle manager, Sue Jones indicates distractedness with an odd timing in her dialogue that is distracting in itself. In the final scenes, and with more than caricature to work with, she fares well. Replacing Jill Forster, Beverley Dunn is excellent as Beatrix, capturing both the conventionality and the intelligent calm in the character.

Lucy Taylor as Poppy has difficult demands in scenes which run close to melodrama while Hayley McElhinney as Ana plays a central role in the success of Act Two. Bob Baines is memorably steady in the likeable role of Duffy, offsider to George, played with oodles of octane by Richard Piper. Piper has a bravura energy which at times could use some finer shading, but the play, and Rayson’s evident fondness for her central character, demands a big, beaming performance and Piper irrepressibly obliges.

If Life After George was only about a louche academic and his three wives, a kind of Carlton version of The Norman Conquests, then the easy targets of Act One would have certainly ensured audience popularity – even if at the expense of a simplification of the historical events of the sixties and seventies, the rise of feminism, and the role of education in social change. Rayson takes on a swathe of social and political history and much of it is only half-chewed. And when prefab concepts such as baby boomers, lefties, generation X, and postmodernism get tossed into the stew – along with ghastly buzzphrases like making a difference and being there for you – you wonder whether there is any life either before or after George.

But Act Two steadily builds beyond the political stereotypes. The relationships become more complex and Rayson finds another gear for the play. Not only does she provide some ringing speeches about the corporatisation of the universities but, with the portrait of Ana, the daughter of a man too much in the world to really understand it, there is a genuine sense of what it means for the personal to be political.

“Causes and Karma” The Adelaide Review, No. 217, October, 2001, p.29.

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