September 01, 1987

Pale Intimations

Pale Intimations
Blood Relations
by David Malouf
State Theatre Company and Sydney
Theatre Company
The Playhous

When a writer of the stature of David Malouf turns to the theatre we are sure to have high expectations. But there is already enough evidence that novelists do not necessarily playwrights make. Locally, Nigel Krauth’s Muse of Fire, Barry Dickins’ Beaut/and, and, more recently Patrick White’s Shepherd on the Rocks have shown us that.

The reasons are not surprising. A novelist has complete sovereignty over his or her fictive world and many a novel is carried by atmospherics and endearing verbal gambits which offset weaknesses in plotting and narrative.

A writer for the stage, on the other hand, has nowhere to hide. If the dramatic situations are not well calculated and characters clearly drawn, no amount of fine writing can make up for it.

David Malouf’s Blood Relations is a theatrical disappointment. Unlike the sublime urbanity of his fiction, his first play (apart from the libretto of Voss) is lumpy, cliched and poorly conceived. · The STC program notes chide audiences who might be harbouring old-fangled yearnings for. plot, character and signs of naturalism by making pre- emptive remarks about epic mythic/poetic drama and its place in the Aussiedrama. That’s all very well, but it is ludicrous to suggest that there is anything epoch-making in Malouf’s play or Jim Sharman’s execrably mannered production.

Blood Relations is a creakingly contrived parody of The Tempest garnished with comic set pieces and worthy speculations about Australian Culture, Power, Death and Family Life as we know it. The central figure is another of your Essington Lewises but this time Willy McGregor aka William la Farge (perhaps) aka Spiros Kyriakou lives in seclusion in the tropical North West with Hilda his housekeeper, Catherine his own personal Miranda and IBM, his own personal PC. The latter reminds us that he is still accessing the world of power and greed down there in Sydney where he once cut the custard as a gangster, financier and bigshot.

Willy’s quiet life wandering the beach with his staff and comfort is interrupted by the return of his stepson,Kit and his ‘manager’ Edward and the intrusion of McClucky and Dash, two refugees from the Mavis Bramston Show who are there to remind us that political issues are really only comic relief.

With his every third thought on death our Pineapple Prospero rails against his son the interior decorator and his Aboriginal son, Dinny, late of grammar school, whose speech as Caliban is a reminder that The Tempest is to Blood Relations as a storm to teacup. As Willy, John Wood gives an imposing performance, but like his Lambert leRoux in Pravda, his emphasis veers away from the unsavoury elements of the character. Wood’s McGregor becomes an almost lovable duffer who just can’t figure the young fry with their compact discs and transsexual clothing. He’s more like Archie Bunker than someone who orders concrete boots for the competition.

The malign force that is needed in Blood Relations is one that would draw on the dark necromancy in The Tempest itself. Instead, director Jim Sharman confines the emotional register to camp posturings and a bollocky physicality in performance which is supposed to pass for vitalism. For that reason Paul Goddard (Kit), David Pledger (Edward) and Laurence Clifford (Dinny) turn in performances that are fey and unconvincing. The effect of course, is to aggrandise the presence of McGregor such that he is more attractive than the text must surely intend.

Heather Mitchell holds her ground as Catherine but, in Willy’s reverie where she plays his former wife Tessa, murdered in suicidal carnage by her lover Frank (who, of course was McGregor’s little business mate), the sequence of events defies imagination whether mythic, poetic or realist.

Maggie Kirkpatrick gives Hilda more persuasive dimension while Deborah Kennedy’s dizzy McClucky reduces investigative journalism to ridicule. She, after all, is right in thinking that Willy is the notorious la Farge but that’s all suddenly sand in the hourglass as Willy goes through the Kubler-Ross countdown. As her crony, Dash, Geoff Morrell is drolly grotesque. It doesn’t save him or the play but at least he’s breathing.

Tim Ferrier’s set conspires with Sharman’s ponderous direction to reduce Blood Relations to a fairly pernicious form of anaemia. With its stacked crates and Monk O’Neil décor the backdrop reflects neither a magus’s lair nor an eccentric’s retreat despite the computer terminal plonked in the middle. The foreground with its rectangular paddling pool to suggest the majestic sweep of the cyclonic Queensland coast is as unsatisfactory as the piddling rainstorm produced from the roof in a stray moment of alarming verisimilitude.

David Malouf has not been well served by this production but the lack of dramatic interest and actual depth in his multilayered script makes it hard to feel sanguine about any presentation of Blood Relations in its present form.

“Pale Intimations” The Adelaide Review, September, 1987.

No Comments »

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment