Two Brothers, STC Drama Theatre

Reviewed by Bryce Hallett
May 23, 2005

By Hannie Rayson, Sydney Theatre Company Drama Theatre, April 21

Hannie Rayson's tug-of-war between the left and the right begins with a fight in the dead of night and ends with the triumph of a newly elected prime minister who also happens to be a murdering thug.

There are few shades of grey in the episodic battleground as the selfless and caring are pitted against the callous and clawingly ambitious. In the compassionate, easy target corner is left-wing community lawyer Tom Benedict (Nicholas Eadie) and his flawed, loving tribe; in the righteous, calculating corner is his brother, the minister for home security, James "Eggs" Benedict (Garry McDonald) and his alienated lot.

Rayson looks to recent border protection events such as the SIEV X tragedy and the Tampa incident to shape her family feud yet the writing lacks depth, preferring to run with stereotypes to evoke the ongoing war of the fair-minded and the pig-headed. The one Iraqi survivor of a refugee boat that sinks in the Indian Ocean, Hazem Al Ayad (Rodney Afif), is pivotal yet poorly fleshed out while the moral dilemma of Eggs's naval officer son Lachlan (Ben Lawson) is unevenly drawn.

As a work about power and manipulation, Two Brothers has plenty of spark and intrigue, but its grasp of political issues hardly extends beyond the broadsheets.

Two Brothers generated a storm when it premiered in Melbourne last month, a controversy partly whipped up by tabloid columnist Andrew Bolt, who took exception to what he saw as Rayson's "cruel" play, its portrayal of the Treasurer, Peter Costello, or his facsimile, as a bigoted liar and, moreover, its assertion that the navy deliberately left women and children to drown.

Despite the factual triggers in what turns out to be an unsubtle yet provocative melodrama, it is fictional as all plays/productions are, irrespective of how hard their creators strive for authenticity. The playwright makes no bones about taking imaginative leaps and striving for effect.

The play begins solidly but director Simon Phillips's heavy-handed staging puts little trust in the text as he pulls the lever for countless revolves of designer Stephen Curtis's gleaming wide-windowed set. The spare yet busy production makes Les Miserables look static.

The dramatic interest and promise of the first act is never realised. Instead, the tribal battleground that teetered on the edge of absurdity topples into sledgehammer conspiracy, drama and farce.

By the end, McDonald's initially smug, defiant, lying minister has become a reliably offensive, sinister, weirdly seductive monster who plays on people's fears to become a familiarly reassuring voice of the people; our digestible Eggs, our "honest" John.

God help us, Rayson seems to exclaim as she takes her fight into the cul-de-sac of irony where genuine laughs are few amid the hollow strains of nationalistic fervour. It is a pat ending, albeit one designed to leave a bitter aftertaste.

Regrettably, Two Brothers, for all its wry observations and satiric spleen, is not well crafted. It cuts itself short almost every time things get interesting. Stereotypes, not substance, rule in a work that pleads tolerance, at least in a piecemeal way.

The acting is generally good given how binary the relationships are. The women have some shading aside from the minister's senior adviser, Jamie Savage (Caroline Brazier) - a caricature who elicits easy laughs and is cast in the mould of many a David Williamson ball-tearer. Laura Lattuada is outstanding as Tom's warm, vocal and resolute partner, Ange Sidoropoulous, while Diane Craig is terrific as Eggs's dutifully loyal, despondent wife, Fiona. Their scene together is well drawn and played.

As satire, it's fiercer than Williamson's Influence, which expresses similar concerns about social grouping, persecution and the politics of fear. But like that lopsided play its uneasy blend of naturalism and grotesque, exaggerated exposure doesn't make for rich, satisfying drama.

Two Brothers delivers amusing one-liners and there's a certain amount of glee to be had as McDonald's vain antics rush towards the predatory zeal of farce but the passionately human concerns at root, and the potential for inner tension, drown in superficiality and cliche.


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