01 October 2010

Guest Reviewer: MelBorn 2010 Season 2

The Premiere 
Mrs Robinson Comes to Town
MelBorn ReBorn, Melbourne Writers Theatre
September 2010
Carlton Courthouse

Review by James Adler

The Premiere

As those of us in the under resourced indi-theatre game know all too well: it takes a long time to get a show to tick all the boxes. So hats off to the Melbourne Writers Theatre, Broken Mirror and MelBorn for giving us this play loaded with potential.

As we wait for The Premiere to begin, I take a moment to admire the design work of Emily Collett. It is a simple but beautiful set of folding flats, made out of light stained timber and canvass. It almost makes us feel like we are in a church. There is huge potential for the set to be used in exciting dramatic ways and had the added advantage being able to be quickly removed, which is often necessary with multiple shows a venue, as is this case. One frustration I did experience is that the potential of this stunning set was never realised.

Suddenly it snaps to black. The show begins.  A male and a female voice speak urgently about acquiring weapons. This opening dramatic effect is strong. Immediately I am engaged, looking around, trying to work out who it is, where they are and what’s happening.
As the lights open up we find ourselves in a police in cell. The inmates are: a young-and-ready-for-action couple Seb (Leon Durr) and Livia (Karla Sylvie), and an imprisoned activist, Matt (Fred Rowan). The three get acquainted and chat about the state of affairs in the world outside the cell, in world of the Democratic Dictatorship of Robert Fellows. Initially I guessed that Robert Fellows might never appear and would, instead, serve as a symbolic point of reference, but this thought was quickly dispelled. In fact the question of how to deal with Robert Fellows (Bruce Langdon), a former freedom fighter who ran out of things to do other than become a dictator and then make a movie about his own demise, quickly becomes the focus of the play.
On the surface The Premiere is quirky, abstract and comic. The healthy smattering of witty one liners and the sharp satirical characterisation from all four performers alone make it worth a look.
That said, my feeling, is that overall many audience members found the piece difficult. While the abstract and satirical style and direction was, in some ways, a positive, they also served as barrier for that stopped the audience getting into the meat of the play. If you were up for the challenge it was clear that writer Amel Kenza is offering more than a gag and a smart turn a phrase. Beneath the surface there was clearly some serious intellectual meat worth gnawing on this bone.
The play is really an investigation of our contemporary movie-mass-media-homogenous-cyber world. The questions being asked are: we’re has our acceptance of our culture become form of passive self-imposed dictatorship? If so how did it get that way? When and how we just give up believing there was a better world to fight for? And if we are going to regain our hope do we A: fight back and try to regain control of the physical world or B: submit and gain power by becoming the lawnmower man and entering completely into the cyber market of the future.
These are indeed important questions and in The Premiere they are woven in an interesting web to that gives us a new perspective from which to consider them. At the end of the day, I say this is a play that has some serious potential but may need to go through another phase or two of development before this potential is fully realised.
With all new work some weakness are to be expected, but it’s important to focus on the strengths and The Premiere has plenty of them. I look forward to seeing where it goes next.

Mrs Robinson Comes to Town

Part two of the evening is Ms Robinson Comes to Town Written by Caroline Rowan and Directed by Renee Palmer. Again this production does a good job in bringing another script with strong signs of potential to daylight. 

Sorry if I seem obsessed, but would one of the directors please spend some time with the set designer and make use of her brilliant work. There is a golden rule in theatre: if there is a gun on the table in the first act then someone needs to get shot in the last act. What I am getting at is that if you promise the audience something you need to deliver. That’s how the contract around the suspension of disbelief works. This set had the potential to make all sort of shapes, be moved and altered between scenes, and be used as a shadow screen and as a scrim – why oh why did nobody do anything with it at all?

Ok, that’s enough of Mr Grumpy Pants because there’s a whole lot of good things about this story.

It’s kind of a half love story for geriatrics and half a satirical feminist/post feminist critique and review of contemporary society. Our protagonists are Grace Robinson, a somewhat heavy-by-nature, been-through-the-wars, both personal and political, die-hard feminist and her would be friend/lover Benny Grubb, a very working class but basically good natured fella who talks a hell of a lot too much.

The plot is simple but effective. Benny comes over and sees he can find a way to alleviate his loneliness by helping Grace unpack.  Grace despite feeling quite put upon, is talked into getting Benny to reveal all sorts of things about herself including her political views and painful personal history.

Ms Robinsons story starts with dead and lost husbands, gay children and climaxes with a revelation about her past rape. In a similarly somewhat two dimensional style Benny, is uncomfortable talking about himself. We get to know few details other than he was in a horrifically prudish marriage.  Throughout the piece Benny’s emotional incompetence is revealed as he constantly deflects personal enquiry with odd facts about Anne Banks who play Mrs Robinson in that film.

This is all aimed to somehow seduce Grace and climaxes with a failed attempt to kiss her. I must comment that while the performances were in general good – this moment in the performance was so badly staged and performed it almost made me gag.

As I said in general the performances were quite strong. The notable short coming on this front apart from the kiss scene was that Gris Gaffney did such a realistic job of his occa accent that he was at times almost impossible to understand. Both actors, but in particular Margaret Younger (Grace) did a good job of creating three dimensional and emotionally accessible characters. This was important because at the end of the day this was a story about two one-dimensional people growing up a bit in their old age and making a new friend.

Overall I think that the script was pretty strong. It got me to have a good think about a couple of ideas. Sometimes men in unwillingness to face emotional problems, might equally well be describe as just trying their best to get along in life, and that sometimes the intellectual rigor of serious politics feminist (or otherwise) has some kind of aesthetic link with the sense of needing pain or having to overcome problems to have a sense of self.

Anyway, I reckon it was a pretty good little piece. The script might need a bit of a nip and tuck and it would be good to see the gag of Benny talking too much and being irritating develop because at the moment that character really runs the risk of driving not only Grace but also the audience to violence.   

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