murraybramwell.com

March 07, 1986

Audacity carries the day

Adelaide‚Äôs State Theatre Company has premiered Stephen Sewell’s Dreams in an Empty City, directed by Neil Armfield, as its Festival offering in the Playhouse.

Ever since State’s and Armfield’s production of Sewell’s earlier play, The Blind Giant is Dancing, astonished admiring audiences in 1983 there has been great anticipation of this new work.

Stephen Sewell’s dramatic writing is extraordinary both in its scope, which is almost hubristically epic, and in the appalling risks he takes with his dialogue. He writes about matters of life and death, the corruption of institutions, the socialist transformation of society and the ravages of the family, and his characters talk as gauchely and artlessly as we ourselves do in the crises and confrontations that determine what we are.

Dreams in an Empty City is about a deathly power struggle between Wilson and Wiesland, two nasty captains of commerce, aided by American merchant bankers, who are themselves sinking into the shark-infested custard of deregulation. As a fly to these wanton boys comes Chris O’Brien, a defrocked priest whose brother, a builder in cahoots with Wiesland, has made him a phantom director of a shonky company which is now under investigation.

Dreams owes much to sleuth writers like Chandler and the detailed emotional encounters of soap opera. In fact, Sewell uses these genres to engage us for virtually a TV mini-series at the theatre.

It is engrossing stuff in a mixture of modes loaded with detail about currency transactions, broadsides at the revisionism of the Labor Government and at business lunches and has an almost expressionist use of satire.

But as always with Sewell such accounts do not sufficiently describe what he is doing. We have also O’ Brien, acting in a mediocre play about the martyrdom of a priest in Central America, asking, “Is Romerez Christ or not? Because if he is the play’s bullshit, and if he’s not, it doesn’t make any sense.”

Sewell, with breathtaking temerity and on the very brink of parody, has built his own play on the Passion of Chris O’Brien, the secular Christ – agonized, betrayed, tempted by the world and finally martyred to deliver us from futility and false gods.

Armfield has taken this play in all its lumpy immensity and staged it with the kind of assurance that has made him one of the very best directors in this country.

As Wilson, John Gaden, State’s artistic director, leads from the front and gives an eerie performance – urbane, mephistophlean and with the compression of a Vice figure in a morality play.

Dreams in an Empty City is an audacious play. Sewell writes with courage and great heart and asks us plainly what our lives are worth. It’s a fair question and this remarkable production reminds us that it is one of the tasks of theatre to ask it.

Murray Bramwell

The National Times, March 7, 1986, p.33.

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