Two Brothers

20 April 2005
Alison Croggon
Theatre Notes

Two Brothers by Hannie Rayson. Directed by Simon Phillips, designed by Stephen Curtis. With Rodney Afif, Caroline Brazier, Diane Craig, Nicholas Eadie, Laura Lattuada, Ben Lawson, Garry McDonald and Hamish Michael. Melbourne Theatre Company at the Arts Centre Playhouse.

Herald Sun instapundit Andrew Bolt seems to have taken his micro-appearance in Two Brothers as the columnist Andrew Blot rather personally. Frothing with self-righteousness and demonstrating his usual uncertain grasp of the difference between fact and fiction, he branded Hannie Rayson's play a "smug vomit of hate".

But he hasn't stopped there: in a quick follow-up, under the startling headline "Hannie's Evil Brew", he diligently researched Ms Rayson's CV in order to attack the "flood of government gold" that has funded her witchy career: the "tax-payer funded" universities, the "tax-payer funded" theatre companies and the "tax-payer funded" literary prizes.

Yea, verily, writ the Jeremiah of the tabloids: our Hannie is a "guzzling artist", profiting by a "great gush" of public money that is pouring all over those layabout chardonnay drinkers who vote Labor and thumb their noses at ordinary people. (If only it were true: studies have in fact revealed that artists are among the lowest paid and hardest working people in Australia. One wonders if Bolt gets as riled about the "taxpayer funded" post office workers or even the "taxpayer funded" Prime Minister and his extraordinary travel bill. But that's by the bye.)

Bolt is amusing as well as poisonous, much like Lord Haw-Haw. But I mention him because he nevertheless touches, if hamfistedly and inaccurately, a real difficulty with Two Brothers. It is morally, politically and aesthetically confused, and a large part of the problem stems from its thin fictionalising of actual people and events.

Two Brothers is openly based on the Costello brothers, Peter and Tim: one the Treasurer for the conservative Liberal government, the other a Baptist church leader who is a leading voice on social justice. In the play, they are transformed into "Eggs" Benedict (Garry McDonald), the wicked Liberal Minister for Home Security, and Tom Benedict (Nicholas Eadie), the bleeding heart liberal lawyer/activist defending the rights of asylum seekers.

The fictional characters bear very little resemblance to the Costellos themselves, but Rayson is clearly intending a polemic on current Australian politics and throws in constant topical references to underscore her point. Nevertheless, this is really a family drama with national politics thrown in to vamp up the psychic static. There's Eggs' neurotic socialite wife Fiona (Diane Craig), his naval son Lachlan (Ben Lawson) and the family tragedy of his dead son. On the other side, there's the outspoken Greek wife of Tom, Ange (Laura Lattuada) and their weak-willed son Harry (Hamish Michael).

The plot is fairly tortured, but it more or less follows the machinations after a boat full of refugees (suspiciously like the SEIVX) goes down in international waters on Christmas Day, drowning almost all aboard. The sole survivor, Hazem Al-Ayed (Rodney Afif) saw Australian naval vessels nearby which, instead of rescuing the drowning passengers, turned and abandoned them... and we have already heard, at the family Christmas dinner, the wicked Eggs (hiss) giving the order to "take no action". By an extraordinary coincidence, Eggs' son Lachlan happens to be on that very ship: he rings his father in distress and the wicked father slams down the phone on his upset son, and refuses to let him talk to his mother. And on Christmas Day, too! (Boo hiss).

By another extraordinary coincidence, the Iraqi survivor of the sinking is represented by... Tom! And Tom, naturally, finds out about the scandal of the Australian ships refusing to pick up the drowning asylum seekers. Eggs gets his even wickeder sidekick, the ball-tearing femocrat Jamie Savage (Caroline Brazier) to get the machinery working to silence his rather too vocal brother. Because Eggs has heard that the PM is retiring, and he is going for the Top Job, and nothing, repeat, nothing is going to stand in his way...

And... well, you can probably guess the rest. Although the second half really stretched my credulity in more than one way, at interval my friend and I took bets on what would happen at the end of the play and, sadly, we were both right.

Eggs is a bad egg all through. Not only is he a "callous bastard", a bully who all but beats his wife, refuses to go to marriage counselling and will use even the death of his son as a tool for manipulation; he's an adulterer, a liar and a power junkie driven by naked greed. There's even lightning when he first comes on stage. All he lacks is a waxed moustache and a black cloak.

Eggs loses credibility as both a character and a metaphor in the opening seconds of the play, when he stabs Hazem Al-Ayed after surprising him in his beach house. Rather than making government moral culpability clearer, this act muddies it altogether with a wholly inappropriate melodrama. Albert Speer or Adolf Eichmann were not convicted because they personally killed Jews; their responsibility was at arm's length. And this question of bureaucratic culpability is what Hannah Arendt went to great lengths to examine in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem, in which she coined the famous phrase "the banality of evil".

After the opening scene, there is no hope of any investigation of this sort in Two Brothers, despite the odd conversation about "good" and "evil". The subtle discriminations and moral exactitudes of Arendt don't exist in this universe. Similarly, Rayson melodramatically exaggerates the actual circumstances of SEIVX (thus opening the door for Bolt's rabid ravings), the real circumstances of which are much more complex, if very disturbing.

The effect is to blur the political dialogue that the play seeks to engender. The human cost of border protection is supposed to be represented by the character of Hazem, played heroically by Rodney Afif, who is a fine actor. But the structure of the play permits him to be little more than the token Iraqi, an occasion for liberal sympathy in a play which is really a drama about a middle class family.

As Simone de Beauvoir said, "Heaven save us from those with good intentions!" I am all sympathy for work which engages with the issues facing asylum seekers in this country; it's a scandal that requires open public discussion. Unfortunately, I think this is precisely the wrong way to go about it.

Probably the archetypal play of liberal protest is Arthur Miller's The Crucible, written in response to the McCarthy-era hysteria against Communists. It's notable that, rather than caricaturing McCarthy himself, Miller went back 300 years in American history to the Salem witch trials to make his point. Another current model of theatrical protest is the tribunal theatre, a specialty of London's Tricycle Theatre, who have just opened with a dramatisation of the Saville inquiry into Bloody Sunday. In this theatre, there is no fictionalising at all: just a carefully honed presentation of fact. Another tack was taken in Melbourne recently, in a brilliant piece of movement theatre that addressed the treatment of asylum seekers, Subclass26A.

Whatever the merits of any of these approaches (I have real doubts about documentary theatre), there is no doubt that they are all effective ways of theatricalising political debate without cheating the issues. Rayson's fictionalising falls between several stools. Of course she has every right to make up what she likes: but it's hard to avoid a sense of exploitation in this work. Behind her exaggerated fictions are real tragedies and real questions and, moreover, real people. Fudging the differences between fact and imagination does service to neither; it confuses the debate (as Andrew Bolt's hysterical responses demonstrate) and raises the uncomfortable question of art exploiting human suffering.

Simon Phillips certainly gives the play a slick production. Stephen Curtis' elegant revolving set sweeps the short scenes across the stage, minimising any longueurs in the script with swift pacing, and he has a high quality cast. Garry McDonald manages his melodramatic role with a surprising flair; although there is absolutely no development in this character - or in any of the others - he generates a complex presence on stage of moral weakness and intransigent greed. Nicholas Eadie demonstrates that it's much more fun playing the bad guy; the only complexity he can find is an occasional kink in his halo.

I was troubled by the female characters. Fiona Benedict, Eggs' unfortunate wife, beggars belief as the browbeaten neurotic socialite. Diane Craig does her best, but in between talking about dresses and bursting into tears, there's really not much she can do to make her character credible. Jamie Savage (played with brutal efficiency by Caroline Brazier) is a porn fantasy of the working woman, and is the real source of evil in the play; one wonders, as an aside, why the strong public woman necessitates a scene of sexual humiliation. Even the supposedly liberated teacher, Ange (Laura Lattuada), demonstrates her feminine credentials by constantly talking about cooking: we can't have those feministas too out there, I guess.

But, as always with Hannie Rayson, this is impeccable middle class theatre about middle class characters directed to middle class audiences. It doesn't dig deep enough to disturb any assumptions or to be genuinely moving, but perhaps it provides the fodder for a few dinner party conversations. It resolves debate into easily digestible binaries - right vs left, good vs evil, victim vs oppressor. In this way it's a kind of negative reflection of the simplistic Manichean universe of our good friend, Mr Bolt. Therein, perhaps, lies its deepest problem.


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