November 01, 1986

State Secrets and Good Works

With so many of Adelaide’s theatre companies resting between engagements my bulletin this time is focused less on what is past or passing and more on what is to come – in particular, for the State Theatre Company in 1987.

When I interviewed John Gaden for last month’s CentreStage Australia, the 1987 season was still under embargo and thus the State secrets enthusiastically outlined by Gaden had to stay under the hat.

By the time this goes to press, the lids will be off and, one hopes, some hats raised to Gaden and his company for a season drawn from the classic repertoire, including some new Australian works and several others recently road-tested in Sydney and overseas.

Whether this brew will appeal to the notoriously pernickity palates of Adelaide remains to be seen – as Gaden has said: “Next year’s season is anything but safe, but what it has going for it is an enormous amount of life.”

State will kick off with Much Ado About Nothing, to be followed later in the year by The Winter’s Tale. “Having decided to do The Winter’s Tale,” Gaden notes, ” it seemed to me that Much Ado was the one to balance it because although it is a much earlier play -written in 1598 – compared to The Winter’s Tale in 1611 – it deals with very much the same area, only it is relentlessly treated as a comedy. It has its dark moments, very dark , but there is nothing like the character of Leontes in The Winters Tale who, in being overtaken by the force of emotion, destroys a whole world- and it is out of the ashes that something regenerates.”

Much Ado and The Winters Tale will both be directed by John Gaden and mark the return of Gale Edwards as Associate Director, following her successful collaboration with Gaden on Stoppard’s The Real Thing earlier this year. With Much Ado, Ken Wilby and Mark Thompson , State’s resident designers, will combine forces for costumes and set and John Comeadow will light the lamps. No details yet for The Winter’s Tale except that Gaden will play Leontes- a performance to look forward to.

1987 will see four Australian works, three of them new plays. The first is Shepherd on the Rocks, the latest from Patrick White, who celebrates his 75th birthday during the premiere season. Once again Neil Armfield will direct along the White lines, and Gaden will take the lead as the Rev. Danny Shepherd , whose love passeth understanding, and the notice of his flock , as he spirits away from his parish in Budgiwank, NSW to the stations of Kings Cross in all their mortifications.

Theatre wizard , David Williamson’s Emerald City will be coming up the yellow brick road from Sydney in a fully imported STC production, directed by Richard Wherrett, designed by Laurence Eastwood and Terry Ryan and including a cast distinguished by John Bell , Ruth Cracknell and Robyn Nevin. With all that in one show, State should be over the rainbow – pot of gold-wise.

In order to rationalise rehearsal costs, the premiere of David Malouf’s first play, Blood Relations is now a co-production with the Sydney Theatre Company directed by Jim Sharman, with sets by Tim Ferrier and costumes by Ross Wallace. The play concerns an assortment of odd customers drawn towards Willy McGregor, a business magnate who lives in seclusion on an island off the NW coast.

A brace of theatrical favourites follow; the first, Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf the Broadway hit of 1962. It is probably one of the great literary ironies that the play characterised Woolf’s writings in the popular mind as being close encounters of the verbally abusive kind which is, in fact, all a very far cry from Mrs Dalloway and Lily Briscoe. It will be interesting to see how George and Martha’s trivial but damaging pursuits appear 25 years on . Lindy Davies leads as Martha, other details unavailable.

Christopher Hampton’s adaptation of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, from the novel by Laclos, did rather bien last year for the RSC at Stratford-upon-Avon, and so State will be hoping that le snickersnack plotting and le decadence will make for theatrical dash in the Playhouse as well.

The season ends with Michael Gow’s Away, directed by Aubrey Mellor. It is a project dear to Gaden who is an eloquent admirer of Gow’s work. He also sees interconnections within the year’s programme: “Both the Gow and Malouf plays use Shakespeare as a starting point. Not that they are about Shakespeare but that’s where they begin and, whether consciously or unconsciously- in David ‘s case, I think consciously – they want to do what Shakespeare does, which is to use a naturalistic/realistic basis to create a work where anything can happen, where faeries intervene, where statues can come to life and Old Father Time can appear and do a Prologue and then go into a scene that’s as natural as what’s happening at that table over there. That’s what the theatre can do.” We look forward next year to what State’s Theatre can do.

From the future To the Present

Michael Frayn’s Benefactors was a late entry to the State’s 1986 programme, and in some respects it is a play oddly out of time and place. It is set in the late 1960s and is recollected in sadder and wiser tranquility some fifteen years later. But is is not a period piece, and certainly not an exercise in nostalgia and for those very reasons Frayn’s play is pungently timely. It is concerned with processes rather than issues or individual events as it explores the antimonies of idealism and goodwill, misanthropy and malice.

David and Jane are the paragons of professional middle-class decency. They are generous, kind, orderly, in a buzzword – caring. Colin and Sheila are emotionally disheveled, socially adrift, at times negative and gormless. As their lives and families intersect, so the various facets of their experience and personality find expressions as the characters in turn kill with kindness, and destroy to create.

David is an architect and he is commissioned to build high-rise residential on a crumbling Edwardian site of Basuto Road -the whole history of ideas in two words as one character observes. Colin becomes involved in a movement to block the proposal, and Sheila and Jane’s allegiances (and almost their affections) cross over as the play proceeds.

In charting the collision course between architecture and the human condition, Frayn’s play wittily displays four characters changing and not changing, gaining moments of empowering insight and reflexively sinking back on the white rat treadmill.

It is a darkly funny work which is densely constructed and offers literary, as much as dramatic satisfaction, in that it often takes the form of overlapping narrative monologues addressed directly to the audience. John Wood, seen in Adelaide recently as the lead in Pravda, has taken on the director’s duties with some courage. Benefactors is certainly a play which could be played at a much more knockout pace than Wood has chosen , but the production would have been the poorer for it. The fact is that the situations – domestic, professional and ethic – are as excruciating as they are funny, particularly where we see the reverse sides of facades revealed paralleling disclosures in the action of the play.

The four players – Geoffrey Rush (David), Jane Menelaus (Jane), William Zappa (Colin) and Liddy Clark (Sheila) give first rate performances. It is a welcome sight to see Geoffrey Rush back on stage in Adelaide, and he acquits himself well as the good-intentioned but obtuse architect of events. Jane Menelaus gives another assured performance with intelligent shading and pace, which neatly matches Liddy Clarke’s satiric but affecting presentation of Sheila – she avoids parody and she lays careful ground for the moments of real crisis which vividly express the torments of her buried life. As Colin , William Zappa has the task of calibrating the sardonic humour and splenetic cruelty of the character, without alienating the audience from him and the perspectives he represents. He exposes the contradictions of decency without ever converting us to his depressive cynicism. This is some of Zappa’s best work – conscientious and well considered.

State can be pleased with Benefactors as their choice for a ring-in, and John Wood has brought together a production which, in keeping with the play itself, is unpretentious and satisfyingly provocative.

Murray Bramwell

CentreStage Australia, November, 1986, pp.14-15.

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