Shadow play

Peter Craven
June 18, 2005

IN the past couple of months Australian theatre has been subject to two plays by writers of the highest reputation that have tackled political subjects and left at least some fraction of their audiences gaping with incomprehension at the shoddiness of the upshot.

Hannie Rayson's Two Brothers, a play about refugees and two brothers, one a government minister and the other a man of the humane liberal Left, played to packed houses at Melbourne Theatre Company and has transferred to Sydney. David Williamson's Influence, a Sydney Theatre Company production with John Waters and Zoe Carides, opens in Melbourne next week.

There's no doubting the achievements of Rayson and Williamson. The finest of Williamson's plays - The Removalists, Don's Party - will be performed decades hence to show what red blood and excitement the Australian theatre could produce in its heyday. Rayson's Hotel Sorrento and Life After George are sophisticated, beautifully structured representations of how the outer world affects inner life.

The puzzle with Two Brothers and Influence is why two high-flying dramatic imaginations should seem, in different ways, to come adrift in the face of political subjects.

It's not that politics is an impossible area for the theatre. Bertolt Brecht, one of the greatest 20th-century playwrights, wrote political theatre with great suppleness and subtlety. Jean-Paul Sartre and Arthur Miller, too, wrote brilliant political theatre. Neil Armfield is about to do the play that inspired the Blair Government in Britain to reconsider theatre funding: David Hare's Stuff Happens, about the war in Iraq. And Stephen Sewell has shown he possesses a formidable dramatic imagination and is a playwright who can take a political vision as his terrible crystal, as in his powerful Myth, Propaganda and Disaster in Nazi Germany and Contemporary America.

But the lesson of political art is an ominous one. The greatness of Brecht's theatre can hardly be equated with his support for communism. One of the greatest political novels, Dostoevsky's The Possessed, which Albert Camus put on stage, is the work of a man whose personal politics were berserk. Dostoevsky possessed the quality the dramatist who touches politics must have to the nth degree: an ability to represent points of view that are not sympathetic to the author. That's why terrorists such as Stavrogin and murderers such as Macbeth are tragic figures, whereas the characters in Two Brothers and Influence tend to be cardboard.

It's not that the dramatist has to feel sorry for a bad character or endorse a repellent political position but they must have the formal sympathy that allows the dramatic figure to burn themselves into significance on the stage. It is one of a hundred qualities Rayson's Two Brothers lacks, alas.

This is a play in which the good refugee-protecting brother decides to hide the refugee in question from his bad ministerial brother by placing him in a beach house that the brothers share. But this incredible dramatic datum is the linchpin of the play: the moment when Garry McDonald's minister stabs the man who seeks asylum in this country.

It's the kind of creaking dramatic absurdity that addles the mind and it has its symmetry at the play's conclusion when the minister who has more or less murdered the refugee is given the prime ministership. Rayson may take a dim view of the Liberal Party but it is astonishing that anyone who understands so little of politics could make it the subject of her play.

Two Brothers looks, on the face of it, like a hysterical milking of a grave subject that has the effect of degrading the kind of compassion that it parades as a badge of honour. In Simon Phillips's production, the revolving stage whirls like the orchestration of this director's fatal flaw. He has directed Two Brothers like a camp version of Neighbours, with all its naturalism (Rayson's great strength) stylised and stereotyped so that fine actors such as McDonald and Nicholas Eadie as the good brother are left naked in the face of the script's banalities. And this is a script that reduces every impulse towards conservatism to complicity with what is reactionary, inhumane and brutishly snobbish.

It is a play that refuses to see the conservative detainers as human and the effect is deeply detrimental to the honourable and rational critique of mandatory detention that has been made. It is also why the Left-liberal members of the first-night audience were reduced to speechless dismay.

When Melbourne's The Age newspaper attempted to get reactions from the usual suspects, no one would comment. Their refusal to criticise or endorse the play is entirely understandable because Rayson is at her best a fine dramatist as well as a likeable woman, and in Two Brothers her heart, if nothing else, is in the right place.

What went wrong? She was encouraged to write a play about what everyone in her circle thought. She fell victim to the dinner-table blather about responsible political art. The poet Yeats said we make rhetoric about our quarrels with others and poetry out of our quarrels with ourselves. Well, Rayson has written out of her (and her world's) quarrel with others, but because she seems to have only a superficial, opinionated sense of what is at issue she can dramatise it only from the perspective of the one-side quarreller.

This has not hurt the play at the box office because the muffled controversy has put bums on seats, but it should be remembered that this is a play whose author persisted with her script in defiance of expert advice and which has encountered some reactions so severe that it must rattle at least some of the actors.

What should she have done? She should probably have kept well clear of a subject on which her sympathies could not be engaged dialectically. If she wanted to write a play about the refugees, she should have tried to enter the mind of her villain. She should have presented him speaking out of his conviction that the policy of detention was something he had always supported.

Or if she wished to show him as an opportunist and hypocrite, then she should have tried to capture the moments of self-doubt, when the mask slipped, when the human needs for affection as well as for power came to the fore. After all, the philandering George, her charismatic academic hero, was no saint but Rayson showed him as a complex figure for whom her audiences felt sympathy.

However, a theatre of opinion is always likely to produce the dance of stereotypes. Williamson's Influence is a better play than Two Brothers, but it too is enfeebled by the dramatist's tendency to animate his characters with sketches of what he thinks rather than the deeper sympathy that might come from what he feels. Williamson has not looked like the playwright of The Removalists for a long time but he has always been at his weakest when the drama of ideas has shown him dependent on his intellectual comprehension of what he is dramatising.

Influence is about the phenomenon of the right-wing, demagogic shock jock. It's potentially a good subject but it involves a lurch towards politics that looks like a slide into self-parody. The shock jock played by Waters is, in his outward professional features, credible enough and the comparative mildness of his interpersonal dealings in contrast to the virulence of his on-air pronouncements shows Williamson's residual skills.

Influence at least aims for a human focus. The difficulty comes when the shock jock'sdomestic situation does dramaturgic handstands to suggest the poverty of his world-view. His wife is a monster of self-regard who can think of nothing apart from relaunching her ballet career, least of all the travails of her Muslim housekeeper and nanny.

Then there's his HSC-studying daughter from a previous marriage, a refugee from her mother who comes to stay in order to pursue her studies. And, capping everything off, there's the radio man's Croatian father whose psychologist daughter says he is severely depressed and therefore also needs the refuge of the millionaire's home. This is a not unpleasing soapy dramatic situation and it's set in motion with a certain expositional efficiency that gives us happy expectations of drama and comedy to come. What comes, alas, is that the old Croatian dad confesses that, far from being an unwilling Nazi conscript during World WarII, he was a willing war criminal. This leads the shock jock and the ballet bore to think only of how the revelation will affect their careers. It's by no means obvious that it would have anything like the effects they imagine and in any case it's a demeaning improbability to throw into the drama. Matters get much worse dramatically when the high school student daughter loses a huge sum of her father's money gambling on the internet. Meanwhile, the psychologist sister passionately believes that her father should confess to his war crimes. The shock jock makes an ugly speech on air about Muslims and life gets very hard for the ripped-off Muslim lady who has to minister to all these creeps.

Influence is a humble play that lurches into political and social questions by misadventure. It is a slightly obscene misuse of the war crime issue but the sheer lack of ambition in the writing makes it far less of a misjudgment in the field of political drama.

The difficulty with Williamson is that the politics becomes a cheap way of sensationalising the drama in the interplay of stick figures. It might have been helpful if there were some inner tension in the characters or if the whole thing had transfigured itself into comedy.

Given Williamson's facility, he might have written a dashing black comedy about old Croatian war criminals, shock jocks and pseuds, and long-suffering Turkish servants of the rich. The suave conventionality of the writing and the fact the characters are stereotypes may have worked in a comic context to subvert the political correctness the play parades like a badge of moral apathy.

Two Brothers fails with the absoluteness of a sunk ship because Rayson has taken her own political opinions so seriously that she thinks they can substitute for dramatic sympathy. Influence sails along, bearably if feebly, because nothing in it is, in the end, taken seriously at all.


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