21 February 2007

The Spook

The Spook
Malthouse Theatre
21 February 2007
Merlyn Theatre, CUB Malthouse

The Spook is an ideal choice for the Malthouse’s first production of the year. It’s a gold AWGIE winning script by a well known and respected local playwright. The scenario of a 19 year old spying on the Bendigo Communist Party in the 1950s is filled with the potential for gripping drama, contemporary resonance and side-splitting comedy. Unfortunately, the script and the production do not fulfil this promise.

Playwright Melissa Reeves has a detailed knowledge and astute insight into the social world of socialists and other parties to the left of the ALP. The Spook is filled with references and jokes known to anyone who has ever sold a socialist paper or been to a leftie meeting. She deftly draws parallels between the politics of the 1950s and those of today. Yes - there is still no unity among the left, the middle class still rule the parties and we are still shocked when someone votes for the ALP. But what is her message? Who is this play speaking to? Is it a commentary about small left parties or a story about a young man who made a choice that had tragic consequences?

Described as a black comedy, The Spook fails in both its comedy and its drama. Act One is far too long and is spent describing the many characters, rather than showing us who they are and what makes them tick. Act Two is more interesting, but complicated by the introduction of more offstage and onstage characters who do nothing for the plot, except distract from it.

The script’s monologue and dialogue serve as an accurate and interesting history lesson, but don’t serve the characters or move the story forward. Let characters speak as themselves, rather than give them slabs of unnecessary exposition. Show us what these people are feeling. Feelings are what make us act. We don’t need to know every detail of Kim Philby’s espionage activities to know that our young spook is having doubts about his life and his choices. Show us his real confusion and pain. There was a moment in Act Two that nearly made him real. He says that he hates that his friends think he’s a commie and that he’s too scared to fight in Vietnam. But that was it – no further explanation or exploration. I don’t know if these thoughts had anything to do with his actions.

Despite the well researched design, the stage world was not authentic 1950s country Australia. The audience loved the nostalgic references in both the script and the design, but they were just references. Pick a Box, wigs (many wigs), funny accents and pointy breasts fail to make this production ring true.

The language was so removed from the time that it contradicted every character. Fuck, cunt, wog, slut – words that existed and were used – but were not liberally sprinkled into middle class (or working class) conversation 50 years ago.

Tom Healey is an artist’s director. It is clear that every person on the stage loves being there and loves what they are doing. The design elements always integrate perfectly and he lets the playwright’s script speak exactly how it was written.

Nonetheless, I always feel distanced from what is happening on the stage. I have yet to be engaged by a Healy production. I can see the direction process far too clearly. The actors always seem distanced from their characters. I’m feel like I’ watching actors acting, rather than being drawn into a world with characters who I care about.

Reeves script is clever, well constructed and has moments that work perfectly, but it needs the tough love of a strong director (and script editor) to cut and shape it into a work that tells an emotionally rewarding story that resonates in the hearts and minds of the audience. As it stands, it remains a kind of funny commentary about socialist parties, set amongst the funny wigs and accents of 1950s Bendigo.

After The Spook I wondered if I expect too much from our flagship companies. Then I saw Away at La Mama the next night. Tiny theatre, fraction of the Malthouse budget, a well known work and a less than perfect production - but for 65 minutes I was totally in their world. Melbourne’s independent theatre regularly presents fabulous theatre. I don’t understand why our major companies miss the mark so often.

This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com.