‘Unemployed at last!’ That wonderful bit of national self-mockery that opens the classic Australian novel Such is Life takes on a bleak overtone for locked-down Sydneysiders with the equivalent of JobKeeper at best to cling to, if that. Still, it’s an indication of how deep the spirit of comedy runs in the national psyche. Max Gillies as Monk O’Neill in Jack Hibberd’s A Stretch of the Imagination is one of the great performances this country has seen and the one-man show with its graveyard humour is one of the best plays we have produced. It’s also true that Gillies’ long-ago cartoons of politicians – Hawke, Howard, those figures from another age – were also a thing of wonder. The clue to Gillies’ Howard was also another comic creation, Barry Humphries’ Sandy Stone. And anyone who saw what the early Humphries did with that suburban creation and re-creation will acknowledge not only Barry Humphries’ grandeur as a performer but the point where tears and laughter meet and melt into each other.
But we’ve always been a funny country, a parody country with a history that, as Mark Twain said, sounded like a set of beautiful lies. And when Laurence Olivier came here in the 1940s with Vivien Leigh the two performers he was fascinated by were Peter Finch – who promptly became the lover of Leigh, you can hear a recording of them doing Antony and Cleopatra together – and that sublime vaudevillian Moe McCackie, the great Roy Rene.
They’re never too far apart, comedy and tragedy. When Rose Byrne was growing up she watched that spate of great Australian comedians that included Magda Szubanski, Jane Turner and Gina Riley. A company that also boasted Eric Bana, who went on to act with her in Troy, the Hollywood Iliad with Brad Pitt as Achilles and Peter O’Toole – an actor who could jump from high comedy to the tempests of tragedy with a flick of his wrist – as Priam.
Rose Byrne then proceeded to do Damages, that deadly thriller about lawyers, with Glenn Close, at its best as dark and gripping a piece of thrillerdom as television ever conjured and then she did a career flip and was a hit in the screwball comedy Bridesmaids and its set of gross and grand successors.
But then, in early 2020, she was doing Euripides’ Medea with her husband Bobby Cannavale in New York directed by Australia’s Simon Stone, following in the wake of such expatriate Australian tragediennes as Zoe Caldwell and the great Judith Anderson.
Now she’s doing Physical on Apple TV which is a return to comedy but of the darkest and most deadly variety.
It’s California in the early Eighties and Byrne plays a woman who practises and preaches aerobics while having a private life as a demon gourmandiser of takeaway food and as she gobbles down the cheeseburgers in the motel she flees only to throw them up in a torrent of despair we know we’re witnessing some ecstasy of self-abuse.
She also spends much of her time trying to promote the political campaign of her hopeless husband, a limp-wristed lefty, while also proving her brilliance as an aerobics maven.
She certainly gets physical to transfixing effect as the leotards go up and up, but Rose Byrne (who looks as good in early middle age as she looked twenty years ago at the outset of her career acting with Heath Ledger) gives a brilliant black comic performance. We hear Byrne whispering the soft nothings of polite gush to the bon bourgeois of California but we also hear her inner voice telling them to get stuffed and die. It’s a breathtaking performance, at once hilarious and at some far edge of heartbreak, bereft and still pumping on hopelessly in a way that reminds us of all the high and mighty ghosts from the album of Australian comedy that would include Josh Thomas and the great John Clarke in The Games and elsewhere.
And it also carries us beyond nationalism as it carries us beyond genre. This is the kind of comedy that Ricky Gervais creeped everyone out in because it was too real. And it’s also, with Byrne, a performance of lightning transitions which brings to mind Maggie Smith and how Billy Wilder, the director of Some Like It Hot took Jack Benny to see her at the outset of her career. It can be said of Byrne what the great comedian said of Maggie Smith, ‘Gee, what about that girl’s timing!’ And Rose Byrne looks headed the same way as if a perfect pitch comic technique were the key to the kingdom of drama.
She and her fellow Bobby Cannavale believe in the dramatic canon and the way in which it is constantly renewed by new plays. Last year they were going to do Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge for the Sydney Theatre Company but the virus got in the way. It’s not hard to see the intimate connection between comedy and drama when we watch her in Physical because of the way she handles the rampant black farce which is at the edge of nightmare – a world where every kindness turns into a cartoon catastrophe.
None of which contradicts Rose Byrne saying with zest of the Physical shoot, ‘It was so fun!’ But when the world is restored we want to see Rose Byrne on stage, we want to see her doing the classics, ancient and modern. We are right to treasure the film stars at whose beauty we have gasped when they also act like angels.
Back in the 1950s Katharine Hepburn, a master of comedy and of tragedy, toured Australia doing Shakespeare with her mate Robert Helpmann who was almost as much a classical actor as he was a dancer. Imagine what a memory Hepburn on stage would have been to those who saw her – the woman who did both The Philadelphia Story and The Trojan Women. And imagine how people might tell their grandchildren that they saw Rose Byrne on stage.
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