Sydney Theatre Company, Wharf 1, April 19
JOANNA Murray-Smith recently spoke on radio of the seductive power of argument, of recalling the sound of her parents and their friends talking passionately long into the night. Those long-evaporated murmurs are the wellspring of Fury, Murray-Smith’s absorbing new play.
Alice (Sarah Peirse) is a neuroscientist at the top of her game and about to receive a huge honour when her 16-year-old son Joe (Harry Greenwood) does something incendiary. Alice is as aghast as you’d expect of any intelligent, socially committed, left-leaning woman and mother, but Joe’s act of rebellion, assertion, independence, whatever, opens up family fault lines at the very moment Alice’s life is up for public scrutiny.
“You’re not who you said you were,” her novelist husband Patrick is driven to say as Alice must finally acknowledge an intellectually messy and morally grubby truth.
Under Andrew Upton’s direction the play’s concerns unfold crisply in a series of set-piece conversations and confrontations. Murray-Smith’s familiar style of whip-smart dialogue and ever-so-slightly heightened realism is matched perfectly by designer David Fleischer’s setting of monolithic grey walls and a desirable tiled floor. It’s a cool, cerebral space in which outbursts of emotion look surprising, as if rare here.
Alice says in the play’s opening scene that there’s “always something to hide” but it doesn’t appear to occur to her that this is more than a clever quip to a journalist. Ah, yes, the journalist. Murray-Smith gives a writer from a student rag a key role but despite Geraldine Hakewill’s creditable efforts to animate the part it never rings true. Rebecca is a device, not a character, and it’s scarcely credible she would get this degree of access to Alice and Patrick, played with rumpled defensiveness by Robert Menzies.
That jarring note aside, Fury proceeds at a compelling pace for its 100 minutes or so. The many themes emerge with great clarity, among them the porous line between idealism and self-centredness, the clash of generations, the centrality of family, the secret and changing self, the animating power of rage. Murray-Smith hones her lines to a high sheen that can introduce a whiff of the lecture room but the pay-off is in her acutely aware observations. There’s the occasional zinger too: vegans beware.
Peirse has a cracker of a role in Alice and gets the fragility not far beneath the witty, ultra-capable surface. Greenwood, making his Sydney Theatre Company debut, is extraordinarily good as the truculent, initially monosyllabic youth, making him brightly alive and engaging. And Fury is possibly at its most challenging and fascinating through the articulate pragmatism of Annie and Bob (Claire Jones and Yure Covich, both wonderful), the rock-solid working-class parents of Joe’s sidekick in crime, the unseen Trevor.
When I returned home from Fury’s opening the news was dominated by the two young men believed to have been responsible for the Boston bombings. Parallels with Fury aren’t exact but there’s enough for the play to feel very timely.
Ends June 8.
Stories I Want to Tell You in Person
Belvoir Downstairs, April 18
IF LALLY Katz has a slow spell in her increasingly impressive playwriting career she could always turn to stand-up comedy. Which she’s essentially done with Stories I Want to Tell You in Person, an exuberant whirl through her life in which she touches on matters of love, theatre, obsession and the supernatural.
Katz claims an appearance as a rabbit is her only previous onstage experience but she’s a natural performer: funny, super-likeable, vibrant and with a fund of fabulous anecdotes and a willingness to use anything to get a laugh, no matter how personal or humiliating. My favourite bit concerns a hostile transvestite karaoke bar and the massacre of Don’t Cry for Me Argentina but the show is pretty much a hoot from start to finish.
Stories I Want to Tell You in Person came about after an earlier Belvoir commission fell into a heap. With Katz’s gift for creating intimate, magical and emotionally rich worlds (Neighbourhood Watch, Smashed) she was perhaps a courageous choice for a piece about the global financial crisis, but that was the gig. The play is yet to be produced, possibly because it was written so quickly. Katz had her mind on other things, chief among them how to be successful in love as well as in work. She turned to psychics for help, a quest that was extremely expensive and, as it turns out, ripe for theatrical exploitation.
And herein lies the enjoyable slipperiness of Stories I Want to Tell You. Was Katz truly seeking enlightenment in tarot, palm and crystal ball readings on 14th and 25th streets in New York? Or was she gathering material? She says several times she has to live what she writes, but how calculated that equation is remains unknown and probably unknowable. Whatever the truth – and after all, what is truth? – this particular instance of it ended with Katz alone on the Belvoir Downstairs stage, standing in front of a glittering gold curtain, poured into tight black jeans and pouring out her stories with juicy frankness.
Although it raised knowing laughs, a tacked-on ending is slightly awkward. It refers to the last-minute postponement of Katz’s original opening night due to illness and at this point the polish slipped and Katz the person rather than Katz the performer appeared. The epilogue points up two things: that those who really know their theatre will get most enjoyment from the show, and that one should never forget the amount of artifice there is in the onstage presentation of a life.
Ends May 26. Then Malthouse, Melbourne, August 9-25
These reviews first appeared in The Australian on April 22