Melbourne Theatre Company
7 January 2009
Fairfax Studio, the Arts Centre
MTC’s 2009 season starts with Grace, a comprehensive debate about religion, belief, faith and love. It’s another play about middle aged academics in crisis, but no one can ever say that this company don’t target their core audience.
Originally performed as On Religion, Grace was developed in the UK by Mick Gordon’s company On Theatre. Gordon calls his works ‘theatre essays’. Each is a group-devised piece exploring a specific issue through a dramatic narrative, with works including On Death, On Ego and On Emotion. He co-wrote On Religion with English Philosopher A C Grayling.
Grayling is not a believer and his views sit firmly in protagonist Grace. Gordon’s views are more encompassing with each member of Grace’s family having specific and changing perspectives about religion. Questions arise when Grace’s son plans to become an Anglican priest and everyone is forced to confront their core beliefs when tragedy strikes.
Gordon says, “The theatre demands argument and balance. It’s no good at didacticism. In my experience, an audience will just not accept it.” The script reflects this with a fascinating range of well researched, contemporary and authentic arguments. And this is where the problem sits.
It’s a very well written work, but it feels too much like a philosophy student’s honours thesis. You certainly leave the theatre discussing and questioning the arguments put forward, but not talking about the characters and the world just seen. There was chat about what Noni (Hazlehurst) did and what Brian (Lipson) said rather than what Grace and Tom went though. I spent the rest of the evening discussing whether a practicing Anglican can reject a literal belief in Jesus or the concept of Christ. It’s great coffee talk, but it was academic; it wasn’t an emotional discussion about what I would do in a similar situation or dilemma.
It felt like the story was forced upon the ideas and the characters were developed from arguments and points of view. This may well be the aim of Gordon’s work, but it left his characters lacking in complexity and making decisions that were consistent with the argument, rather than the character.
Nonetheless, director Marion Potts breaks down most of the rhetoric and tells the story with warmth and passion. The most moving moments occurred when there was no dialogue and the characters were able to show us what they were really feeling. Hazlehurst is especially stunning when she reacts to a very long monologue at a grave side.
The casting is perfect. Hazlehurst and Lipson are joined by Grant Cartwright and Leah Vandenberg and each brings a complexity and emotional life to their character that isn’t evident in the writing.
Adam Gardnir is on his way to being one of the must have designers in the country and Grace is his first main stage design for the MTC. The design initially seems quite obvious and practical, but as the story unfolds, it shows its suggestiveness, and ultimately reveals its symbolism and complexity.
Grace is well worth seeing for the calibre of the creative team. Its writing is sure to encourage many discussions, but would be so much more powerful if it could break free from its own restraints and create a world not so strictly governed by text book debate.
This review appeared on AussieTheatre.com.