Two Brothers ~ theatre notes

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Two Brothers

Two Brothers by Hannie Rayson. Directed by Simon Phillips, designed by Stephen Curtis. With Rodney Afif, Caroline Brazier, Diane Craig, Nicholas Eadie, Laura Lattuada, Ben Lawson, Garry McDonald and Hamish Michael. Melbourne Theatre Company at the Arts Centre Playhouse.

Herald Sun instapundit Andrew Bolt seems to have taken his micro-appearance in Two Brothers as the columnist Andrew Blot rather personally. Frothing with self-righteousness and demonstrating his usual uncertain grasp of the difference between fact and fiction, he branded Hannie Rayson's play a "smug vomit of hate".

But he hasn't stopped there: in a quick follow-up, under the startling headline "Hannie's Evil Brew", he diligently researched Ms Rayson's CV in order to attack the "flood of government gold" that has funded her witchy career: the "tax-payer funded" universities, the "tax-payer funded" theatre companies and the "tax-payer funded" literary prizes.

Yea, verily, writ the Jeremiah of the tabloids: our Hannie is a "guzzling artist", profiting by a "great gush" of public money that is pouring all over those layabout chardonnay drinkers who vote Labor and thumb their noses at ordinary people. (If only it were true: studies have in fact revealed that artists are among the lowest paid and hardest working people in Australia. One wonders if Bolt gets as riled about the "taxpayer funded" post office workers or even the "taxpayer funded" Prime Minister and his extraordinary travel bill. But that's by the bye.)

Bolt is amusing as well as poisonous, much like Lord Haw-Haw. But I mention him because he nevertheless touches, if hamfistedly and inaccurately, a real difficulty with Two Brothers. It is morally, politically and aesthetically confused, and a large part of the problem stems from its thin fictionalising of actual people and events.

Two Brothers is openly based on the Costello brothers, Peter and Tim: one the Treasurer for the conservative Liberal government, the other a Baptist church leader who is a leading voice on social justice. In the play, they are transformed into "Eggs" Benedict (Garry McDonald), the wicked Liberal Minister for Home Security, and Tom Benedict (Nicholas Eadie), the bleeding heart liberal lawyer/activist defending the rights of asylum seekers.

The fictional characters bear very little resemblance to the Costellos themselves, but Rayson is clearly intending a polemic on current Australian politics and throws in constant topical references to underscore her point. Nevertheless, this is really a family drama with national politics thrown in to vamp up the psychic static. There's Eggs' neurotic socialite wife Fiona (Diane Craig), his naval son Lachlan (Ben Lawson) and the family tragedy of his dead son. On the other side, there's the outspoken Greek wife of Tom, Ange (Laura Lattuada) and their weak-willed son Harry (Hamish Michael).

The plot is fairly tortured, but it more or less follows the machinations after a boat full of refugees (suspiciously like the SEIVX) goes down in international waters on Christmas Day, drowning almost all aboard. The sole survivor, Hazem Al-Ayed (Rodney Afif) saw Australian naval vessels nearby which, instead of rescuing the drowning passengers, turned and abandoned them... and we have already heard, at the family Christmas dinner, the wicked Eggs (hiss) giving the order to "take no action". By an extraordinary coincidence, Eggs' son Lachlan happens to be on that very ship: he rings his father in distress and the wicked father slams down the phone on his upset son, and refuses to let him talk to his mother. And on Christmas Day, too! (Boo hiss).

By another extraordinary coincidence, the Iraqi survivor of the sinking is represented by... Tom! And Tom, naturally, finds out about the scandal of the Australian ships refusing to pick up the drowning asylum seekers. Eggs gets his even wickeder sidekick, the ball-tearing femocrat Jamie Savage (Caroline Brazier) to get the machinery working to silence his rather too vocal brother. Because Eggs has heard that the PM is retiring, and he is going for the Top Job, and nothing, repeat, nothing is going to stand in his way...

And... well, you can probably guess the rest. Although the second half really stretched my credulity in more than one way, at interval my friend and I took bets on what would happen at the end of the play and, sadly, we were both right.

Eggs is a bad egg all through. Not only is he a "callous bastard", a bully who all but beats his wife, refuses to go to marriage counselling and will use even the death of his son as a tool for manipulation; he's an adulterer, a liar and a power junkie driven by naked greed. There's even lightning when he first comes on stage. All he lacks is a waxed moustache and a black cloak.

Eggs loses credibility as both a character and a metaphor in the opening seconds of the play, when he stabs Hazem Al-Ayed after surprising him in his beach house. Rather than making government moral culpability clearer, this act muddies it altogether with a wholly inappropriate melodrama. Albert Speer or Adolf Eichmann were not convicted because they personally killed Jews; their responsibility was at arm's length. And this question of bureaucratic culpability is what Hannah Arendt went to great lengths to examine in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem, in which she coined the famous phrase "the banality of evil".

After the opening scene, there is no hope of any investigation of this sort in Two Brothers, despite the odd conversation about "good" and "evil". The subtle discriminations and moral exactitudes of Arendt don't exist in this universe. Similarly, Rayson melodramatically exaggerates the actual circumstances of SEIVX (thus opening the door for Bolt's rabid ravings), the real circumstances of which are much more complex, if very disturbing.

The effect is to blur the political dialogue that the play seeks to engender. The human cost of border protection is supposed to be represented by the character of Hazem, played heroically by Rodney Afif, who is a fine actor. But the structure of the play permits him to be little more than the token Iraqi, an occasion for liberal sympathy in a play which is really a drama about a middle class family.

As Simone de Beauvoir said, "Heaven save us from those with good intentions!" I am all sympathy for work which engages with the issues facing asylum seekers in this country; it's a scandal that requires open public discussion. Unfortunately, I think this is precisely the wrong way to go about it.

Probably the archetypal play of liberal protest is Arthur Miller's The Crucible, written in response to the McCarthy-era hysteria against Communists. It's notable that, rather than caricaturing McCarthy himself, Miller went back 300 years in American history to the Salem witch trials to make his point. Another current model of theatrical protest is the tribunal theatre, a specialty of London's Tricycle Theatre, who have just opened with a dramatisation of the Saville inquiry into Bloody Sunday. In this theatre, there is no fictionalising at all: just a carefully honed presentation of fact. Another tack was taken in Melbourne recently, in a brilliant piece of movement theatre that addressed the treatment of asylum seekers, Subclass26A.

Whatever the merits of any of these approaches (I have real doubts about documentary theatre), there is no doubt that they are all effective ways of theatricalising political debate without cheating the issues. Rayson's fictionalising falls between several stools. Of course she has every right to make up what she likes: but it's hard to avoid a sense of exploitation in this work. Behind her exaggerated fictions are real tragedies and real questions and, moreover, real people. Fudging the differences between fact and imagination does service to neither; it confuses the debate (as Andrew Bolt's hysterical responses demonstrate) and raises the uncomfortable question of art exploiting human suffering.

Simon Phillips certainly gives the play a slick production. Stephen Curtis' elegant revolving set sweeps the short scenes across the stage, minimising any longueurs in the script with swift pacing, and he has a high quality cast. Garry McDonald manages his melodramatic role with a surprising flair; although there is absolutely no development in this character - or in any of the others - he generates a complex presence on stage of moral weakness and intransigent greed. Nicholas Eadie demonstrates that it's much more fun playing the bad guy; the only complexity he can find is an occasional kink in his halo.

I was troubled by the female characters. Fiona Benedict, Eggs' unfortunate wife, beggars belief as the browbeaten neurotic socialite. Diane Craig does her best, but in between talking about dresses and bursting into tears, there's really not much she can do to make her character credible. Jamie Savage (played with brutal efficiency by Caroline Brazier) is a porn fantasy of the working woman, and is the real source of evil in the play; one wonders, as an aside, why the strong public woman necessitates a scene of sexual humiliation. Even the supposedly liberated teacher, Ange (Laura Lattuada), demonstrates her feminine credentials by constantly talking about cooking: we can't have those feministas too out there, I guess.

But, as always with Hannie Rayson, this is impeccable middle class theatre about middle class characters directed to middle class audiences. It doesn't dig deep enough to disturb any assumptions or to be genuinely moving, but perhaps it provides the fodder for a few dinner party conversations. It resolves debate into easily digestible binaries - right vs left, good vs evil, victim vs oppressor. In this way it's a kind of negative reflection of the simplistic Manichean universe of our good friend, Mr Bolt. Therein, perhaps, lies its deepest problem.

Links
Drowning in Propaganda, by Tom Hyland: The Age
The Fiction and Fact of Two Brothers, by Hannie Rayson: The Age
Melbourne Theatre Company


10 comments:

angela costi said...

Dear Alison,

thank you for yet another incisive
and thoroughly researched report and
review of a stage play. Currently,
I can't afford MTC and Playbox productions, so it's great to have access to theatre vicariously
through blogs like yours.

We can only hope that Andrew Bolt will come across your posting and ponder his uncanny resemblance to certain theatre characters.

best wishes,
angela costi

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks Angela - your comments are much appreciated! It's also nice to know that my responses are interesting to those who haven't seen the shows. I always hope they are!

Very best

Alison

jeremy eccles said...

I have not yet had an opportunity to see Two Brothers - it arrives all too soon in Sydney. But I'd be fascinated to prepare myself by your thoughts, Alison following my reaction to Hannie's previous play, Inheritance. Here she researched furiously throughout Western Victoria and clearly had got "into" the country as far as the issues she raised.

Land ownership in both its black and white senses emerged as sensitive matters.

But, theatrically, Rayson resorted to pure soap-opera as her method of delivery. Audiences had great fun, I'm sure. But they were thus enable to totally evade the issues.
Is soap still Rayson's style choice for Two Brothers? Is this her fundamental flaw - an ear for the issues du jour, but a pen that's been corrupted by too much tele??

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Jeremy

I have always felt very uneasy about the primacy Hannie gives to research. But that's an argument not unconnected with what I say in the review. Writers should know what they're talking about, but they're not documentary makers: legitimate "research" for a playwright might, perhaps, involve reading Ibsen - who is probably worth comparing with this work, because he succeeds brilliantly in taking big issues and exploring them through a family drama.

I'll be interested to hear your response to Two Brothers - perhaps you could post a snatch here? But to answer your question, I guess soap opera is the contemporary equivalent of melodrama, and that's certainly what she is doing in this one. But Hannie's plays have always seemed very close to soap to me. And I think you're quite right, that the form then permits the issues to be sidestepped. Not that I'm at all sure about the idea of a play as a vehicle for a "message" in the first place.

I'm sure that it's possible to do something interesting with the form of soap, theatrically speaking - maybe taking a cue from Orton or Feydeau?! - but this is not it...

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Jens

Sounds like an interesting article, but it's hard to comment without having seen it. What immediately troubles me is a fear that it fits rather neatly with the recent push on US campuses for "objective" teaching, which is really a right wing campaign aimed at clamping down on academic freedom and shutting down dissent. It often presents itself in the guise of claiming that such and such an area is dominated by liberals, and often has few facts behind its assertions - in fact, it's often just slanderous. I've been following this whole issue with some concern the past few years, and it's a really serious problem.

Which is not to say that there's not a problem, broadly speaking, with the humanistic/liberal/middle class/left wing theatre tradition since the 60s/70s - it certainly bears a little critiquing. I think Howard Barker's got an aggressively stimulating take on that question.

That aside - there's been a lot of left wing political art of the first order (Brecht springs to mind). And crowd-pleasing isn't necessarily a problem either - Shakespeare was great at it. It's more the issue of predigested ideas served up to an audience who can do no more than agree with them. Or the idea that a piece of theatre is "good" because it says the right kinds of things, rather than because there's any theatre going on.

Btw Jens, I pulled out Mamet's Three Uses of the Knife out of the bookshelf after your recommendation - after the last book I really didn't feel like reading him again. After glancing through it, I expect to disagree with him, but perhaps more enjoyably than last time I read him -

Cheers

A

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Jens - what's the evidence for the "right-thinking" that is "shoved down students' throats"? Most committed and decent teachers are about teaching students how to think critically about complex things.

There's a very large difference between opening out debate, and the kind of McCarthyist campaigns that are unsettlingly happening in the US via organisations like Campus Watch, which ironically use the victimisation rhetoric of liberalism to drive their point. They are without doubt about shutting down thought and debate, not about promoting it. But that's a much larger topic than can be debated here.

Cheers

A

Ben Ellis said...

Jens,

Evidence was called for: detail it. Unless you detail it, how am I as a reader of theatrenotes able to weigh it? What did you say? Were you shouted down? Or were you simply questioned and became too defensive to push past the boundaries of your own set ideas? I'm not saying that you necessarily have set ideas, but without the detail I detect evasiveness.

And what's the saying? "The plural of anecdote is not data."

Ben E

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks Ben: quite. Pieties and lack of questioning exist on both left and right, but I have to say that the most aggressive trampling of debate seems to stem from the right wing. Andrew Bolt, with his mischievous qoting out of context and bizarre and emotive distortions of fact, is only typical.

There's a fairly good summary of Campus Watch activities at The Nation, though these aren't the only worrying things, nor the only worrying organisation. Recently, to my astonishment, Campus Watch even named a number of poets as "terrorist sympathisers" (!), which shows that CW's ambitions reach way beyond Middle Eastern studies.

Best

A

jeremy eccles said...

Two Brothers is obviously off the radar now in Melbourne. The Bolt has been shot! But in Sydney, it's provoking much interest - though not the same newspaper furore.
Personally I can understand the anger of the thundrous Bolt - for Two Brothers is a piece of dangerous political drama that just might get through to the relaxed and comfortable minds of 1000s of MTC/STC subscribers and undermine their faith in politicans generally.

But of course Bolt is wrong in thinking it's about the Costellos. It's not even about the Libs. It's about the debauchment of the Aussie political system by a bunch of time-serving, career-hungry pygmies who make policy by opinion poll and who employ an ever-growing number of PAs as gate-keepers to protect them from the realities of ordinary voters. It's a state apparatus that would make Goebbels proud!

The play doesn't take its analysis that far, of course, but it is certainly a play for the disenfranchised of the last election. And I think it is the sort of play that David Marr was calling for in a lecture a year or so ago when he reminded us that P White hadn't fled this uncultured country but had stayed on to write.

Which all means I think you (Alison) are wrong to call Two Brothers "really a family drama with national politics thrown in to vamp up the psychic state".
Not that some aspects of the family don't get well-handled. The boy cousins' relationship was particularly believable, despite the continuing Rayson flaw in giving us the limited scenes (in time and depth) of TV drama on a stage that could carry so much more in terms of character development.

It was a far worse level of soapiedom in Inheritance - perhaps Ms Rayson is under orders? For I can't believe that commissioning director Simon Phillips wasn't playing excessively for laughs in making such choices as leaving ball-breaker Jaime's tights hanging loose in the sex scene, when we were actually approaching the moral climax of the play.

The extraordinary thing was that the story survived such charicatures and coincidences. And here the power of the plotting surely saved the day. What a first half closer with the Hitchcockian ringing of Hazem's telephone! The second half fell away far less than I feared from your review. Frankly, I remained on the edge of my seat as the moral dilemmas mounted for the wife and son of the soon-to-be PM and as the goody Tom revealed his own streak of the Benedict DNA by placing his own position well ahead of an understanding of his son's failings over career and drug abuse.

Far from perfect, then, but thrilling in the context of our State theatre companies general preferences for non-threatening, unquestioning contemporary work.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks, Jeremy - I really appreciate your posting your take on Two Brothers here!

It was interesting reading it: I think this is one of those instances where we'll have to agree to differ.

Cheers

Alison