When Brett Sheehy, the departing artistic director of the Melbourne Theatre Company took the stage of the Sumner with the general manager Virginia Lovett he declared it was, to the day, exactly a year since we’d been to the last opening which was a revival of David Williamson’s Emerald City with Nadine Garner and Rhys Muldoon. It certainly felt like an age given the extended and severe nature of Daniel Andrews’ lockdown. Poor Andrews himself, with all his shattered bones, seemed almost like a figure from Greek tragedy: how was Victoria in general and Melbourne in particular going to function with the man who had seemed to run it single-handedly out of action indefinitely? And to add to this funereal note the State Theatre company which opened up again, the place where we’d seen memorable theatre on a good day, Nikki Shiels in Home, I’m Darling or Joanna Murray-Smith’s Switzerland (both as it happens directed by Sarah Goodes) was looking like a diminished thing. The bar was not open for so much as mineral water or the caffeine of cola drinks (the critic’s friend) and there was no party.
So we saw, like ghosts, masked and not instantly recognisable, figures like Terry Moran the former chair of the MTC and a one-time éminence grise to governments state and federal, or Deidre Rubenstein who had her role in that magnificent production Simon Phillips did of August: Osage County and who was Mrs Pearce in the Julie Andrews-directed revival of My Fair Lady. The shadowy, stripped back nature of this reopening was a reminder of the fact that this company, which descends lineally from the one for which Ray Lawler wrote Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, and which saw the first heyday of Zoe Caldwell, commands a loyalty which is as much social as aesthetic and this was highlighted a bit sadly by the slenderness of the first new offering.
Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes by Hannah Moscovitch is a Canadian two-hander about a young middle-aged academic who has an affair with a 19-year-old student. Petra Kalive’s production has a good and sturdy performance by Dan Spielman as the academic-writer and (at least on opening night), alas, an execrable one by Izabella Yena as the girl. The play is a serviceable piece of writing with a clever perspective trick which attempts to make something of the moody whirligig, the redresses and the injustices of the #MeToo movement, and it is clever in that slick, middlebrow manner of theatre that apes a socio-political reality it sees from afar in overly bright lights. The production looks as though it’s been rehearsed in a garage. It is lame and graceless on the eye like a half-converted rehearsal space and the action that transpires within it (embraces, recoils, the odd blowjob) are performed in the most hapless and unconvincing manner.
None of this stops Dan Spielman giving one of the brighter performances of his career, full of roller-coaster bravado and wan self-reproach. It’s not a bad performance, the trouble is that Izabella Yena makes him look like, I don’t know, Ken Branagh on a good day. And this is fatal given that Hannah Moscovitch’s play – like say, Private Lives at an immeasurably lower level of achievement – is a tennis match. The girl should come across as arrestingly, humblingly, bright and she should also project an irresistible attractiveness. In this production she is neither, with bells on. The get-up does nothing to highlight the virtues of her looks and she comes across as someone who couldn’t make her way through a book. Nor does it help that the transposition from Canada to Australia looks absent-minded. Montreal is left intact as the other city but Spielman’s character gets an Order of Australia.
You can see why this play might have seemed like a good idea at the time but it’s a just-bearable disappointment. And the MTC needs to bring back the bar and the party. We’re not in Dan’s bad dream kingdom anymore.
The Melbourne Theatre Company has done some fine things in its day and it will soon have a new artistic director. It would be nice to think that the recent purgatorial time of brooding on its absence could lead to some kind of renaissance.
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