Dinner ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, August 24, 2004


Dinner by Moira Buffini, directed by Julian Meyrick, designed by Ralph Myers, lighting by Paul Jackson. With Pamela Rabe, Neil Pigot, Alison Whyte, Brian Lipson, Stephen Curry, Robert Jordan and Ming-Zhu Hii. Melbourne Theatre Company at the Fairfax Studio, Victorian Arts Centre, until October 2.

Dinner left me at odds with myself. On the one hand, I was neither bored nor pained, and, in a general way, enjoyed myself. On the other, it scarce ruffled the surface of thought; if I hadn't had to write this, I should have almost totally forgotten about it by now. Back to the first hand, why should I object to something so totally harmless? And on the other, how can I not object to theatre so totally harmless?

And again - watching Pamela Rabe being febrile, feline, sexy, desolate, acidly witty and despairing all at once is a treat. Rabe is an Actress with a capital "A", and in a long black evening frock with diamantes she generates the sort of presence that makes strong persons swallow hard and lesser mortals involuntarily bow. The play is a perfect star vehicle, and Rabe adorns it with a predatory glitter among a high quality cast who, if they seldom challenge Rabe's centrality, each shine in their own way. I couldn't help wishing all this talent was lavished on a more worthy object, but I seemed alone in my reservations (I often am). The full-house audience loved it.

You see my difficulty: it's not as if I don't enjoy fluff, or even pap, especially if it's presented with style. It's just that I would prefer it to have a little substance.

As its title promises, the play follows a dinner thrown for her husband Lars (Neil Pigot) by society hostess Paige (Pamela Rabe) to celebrate the success of his sub-Nietzschean self-help book, Beyond Belief. She (or Buffini) has invited some carefully chosen representatives of Britain's intellectual elite for what is, I suppose, a kind of existential dinner party, in that its culinary meaninglessness reflects the pointlessness of life. The lucky guests include a dippy visual artist Wynne (Alison Whyte), who also happens to be Lars' mistress. Wynne's politician lover is invited but absent, as their relationship has just broken up because Wynne exhibited a painting of his genitals. The electronic media is represented by bimbo newsreader Sian (Ming-Zhu Hii), and the sciences by her new husband microbiologist Hal, an old friend of Paige and Lars who left his ex-wife suicidal when he abandoned her for younger flesh.

As a necessary sociological contrast, working-class van driver Mike (Stephen Curry) crashes in the fog and, after he comes to the house to ask for help, is installed as a guest in the place of the absent Member for Camberwell Green (he of the unwillingly publicised penis). Finally, a sinisterly efficient and silent waiter (Robert Jordan), hired through a mysterious web page whose motto is "Let me hold your coat and snicker", completes the set up. As the motto is meant to suggest, he is Eliot's "eternal Footman", an avatar of death.

Naturally, as the play progresses we understand the hypocrisies of these characters, how unpleasant, weak, selfish and vulnerable they are, blah blah (at this point I found my attention wandering, like it does, in fact, at the sorts of dinner parties where competitive wit substitutes for actual conversation). Wynne claims to be an artist of eroticism, but unsurprisingly is distinctly prudish; Lars' pseudo-Nietzschean philosophy turns out to be really a front for his mean-minded egocentricity; the bimbo news reader is in fact the brightest and bravest of all the guests, and the working class van driver - who has possibly burgled the house next door - the most honest.

So far, so BBC situation comedy. Dinner is dressed up with lashings of literary allusion, but that doesn't lift it into the realm of the literary. The literary allusion might in fact be part of the problem - kind of like what faux Stoppard would be if Stoppard were not faux in the first place. The effect is as if Buffini had rummaged through the attics of Western culture, emerging with a text that's nostalgically encrusted with decorative trinkets from a time when high culture really mattered. But in fact, its aesthetic heart is firmly with The Good Life.

In Julian Meyrick's stylish production the play fizzes from witticism to witticism, lurching through Paige's surreal and disgusting courses (Primodial Soup, Apocalypse of Lobster and, for dessert, Frozen Waste, each as nasty as they sound) towards what you know will be a black conclusion. Meyrick and designer Ralph Myers boldly set the play in the round, on an unadorned parquet revolve. Although this mucks up Buffini's "Last Supper" metaphor - the play is clearly written to be performed on a proscenium arch stage, with Da Vinci's painting as a visual reference - it permits some pretty flash scene changes, with neurotic violin music by Tim Dargaville highlighting a choreographic satire of social manners.

I am no nationalist, and abhor nationalistic arguments about art. But Dinner reminded me that we are a colony: we still bow to the Queen of England, although our interest is now lodged in the US Reserve Bank. Even if it did live up to its pretensions as social satire (the jury's out on that one), Dinner is so specifically English that it's hard to see the point of producing it here.

After all, what has Cool Britannia, Tony Blair's amoral and materialistic Brave New World, got to do with us? Our local brand of moral bankruptcy is of an entirely different breed: lacking the strange arrogance of having lost an empire, our crassnesses are underlaid by insecurity - what Donald Horne once famously dubbed the "cultural cringe". One of the cringe's symptoms is, not unincidentally, the way that insubstantial West End hits are picked up for our main stages. Dinner is as determinedly superficial as its characters or the social milieu it purports to criticise, and while it aims for the profundities of tragedy, can only attain the brief frisson of shock or surprise. Its pretensions towards absurdist drama can't excuse the emotional falsity of some its dramatic surprises, and it's this lack of emotional torque which makes it so forgettable.

If Dinner were a more profound play, it wouldn't matter where it was set. Unlike the work of Chekhov, or Orton, or Wilde, Buffini's play doesn't transcend its specific origins to enter the generous amplitudes of art. An afternoon's diversion, for sure; but one that painlessly drains out of your psyche, changing nothing.

Melbourne Theatre Company

No comments: