Ray's Tempest ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Ray's Tempest

Ray's Tempest by Steve Rodgers, based on an original script and idea by Justin Monjo and Richard Roxburgh. Directed by Bruce Myles, designed by Judith Cobb, lighting by Jon Buswell, music composed by Peter Farnan. With Caroline Brazier, Kim Gyngell, William McInnes, Alex Menglet, Hamish Michael, Genevieve Picot and Alexandra Schepisi. Melbourne Theatre Company at the Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre, until April 15.

Ray's Tempest is a frustrating play. There are many things to admire about it, among them some fine passages of lyric writing and an admirable complexity and ambition, but ultimately it feels like a cop out.

This feeling may have much to do with Bruce Myles' overdressed and increasingly overwrought production, of which more later. But it is also about Steve Rodgers' inability in this, his first play, to emulate the spare feeling in Raymond Carver's poem Gravy, which is one of the core inspirations for Ray's Tempest. In Gravy, a dying Carver writes of being told, a decade earlier, that he had six months to live: "Gravy, these past ten years. / Alive, sober, working, loving and / being loved by a good woman. ... 'Don't weep for me,' he said to his friends. "I'm a lucky man. / I've had ten years longer than I or anyone / expected..."

The theme in Ray's Tempest is, accordingly, redemption and acceptance. Ray Brink (William McInnes) works for Sinclair Holdings, a company rather like Kerry Packer's ACP. He sells advertising for a knitting magazine. On the same day that he finds out that an inoperable heart condition means that he will die in six months, he is threatened with redundancy: his sales figures are poor, and he's from an old breed of salesmen whose time is past.

If this inevitably conjures echoes of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, the influence is clearly far from coincidental. Rodgers splices memory and the present in the same dreamlike fashion patented by Miller, and often to good effect. The tale of Ray's attempt to make up to his estranged wife Ruthie (Genevieve Picot) and his justifiably bitter and hostile son Frog (Hamish Michael) is given a contemporary spin by his entering a grotesquely credible reality tv show, Last Wish, in which the various dying contestants vie for a million dollars to realise their heart's desire.

With the connivance of his boss, hardass career woman Cynthia Cornish (Caroline Brazier), who sees an unparalleled publicity opportunity, Ray enters Last Wish and becomes an all-singing, all-dancing star, the pride of Sinclair Holdings. But it becomes clear that his real motive is to re-establish ties with Frog and Ruthie, whom he still loves, before he dies. Ruthie has, since Ray's abandonment of them after a family tragedy, rebuilt her life; she is studying art and living with a man who treats her well, Boris (played with charisma by Alex Menglet on half throttle). Frog, now a disaffected, alienated young man, wants nothing at all to do with him.

Ray is not a bad person, but he is not very admirable. "It's not a crime to be a weak man," says his wife Ruthie, in an echo of Linda in Death of a Salesman. An alcoholic like her ex-husband, although now reformed, she knows that she, too, has been weak, and that their flaws do not mean that they are not worthy of love. Ray's real crime has been to deny the love that surrounded him despite his faults. Fleeing punishment, he has spent the rest of his life punishing himself.

I found the first half absorbing and interesting. Rodgers has digested his American influences enough to give them an Australian idiom that is neither forced nor shallow, and there are some powerful moments: one when Ruthie, as a mature age student, fluffs her oral thesis on Giacometti - a moving speech on loss - when she is overwhelmed by memories of Ray; another a brief glimpse of Frog, naked and vulnerable in the shower, in the grip of uncontrollable grief and self-hatred.

The supple interweaving of shorter and longer scenes, monologue and dialogue, creates a complex texture of ideas and feeling. The play is threaded with subtle repetitions, reaching at moments a true vernacular poetic, and reveals a writer of real promise thinking through his chosen traditions. But there is something nostalgically mid-20th century about this play; it doesn't transcend its origins and metamorphose into something new, although it almost threatens to.

Sadly, after interval it falls off the emotional tightrope it walks so deftly in the first, descending first into melodrama and then into outright bathos. Bruce Myles' direction certainly doesn't help this impression: it is from the beginning overdressed and heavy-handed. Judith Cobb's set, which makes ingenious use of water, one of the play's motifs, features just too many curlicues; the lighting design is just that bit too fussy.

It adds up to a sense of directorial orchestration that has strings swelling up to heighten the moment, as if it were a Hollywood movie. As the play reaches its various climaxes, this over-egging becomes unbearable: the acting winches up into Acting with a capital "A", all the performance of feeling with none of the substance. I may well be especially flinty-hearted, but while others around me sniffled and reached for their hankies, I just writhed with impatience, feeling somehow cheated.

Finally the play is a million miles from the unsentimental toughness of Carver, who is himself a derivation of James Joyce's miserly mastery in Dubliners. As I left the theatre, it occurred to me that what I had watched was decadent art, a form that has played itself out. Ray finds his redemption, of course, by, of course, facing his demons, and, of course, makes peace with himself before, of course, he dies. The therapeutic value of this process is plugged for all it's worth, and everyone goes home happy, relieved that, despite all our sins, we are all good blokes in the end.

Except for me, of course.

Genevieve Picot and William McInnes in Ray's Tempest. Photo: Jeff Busby


Anonymous said...

Over all i found the performance to be quite powerful. The characters were well thought out and i enjoyed jokes.
Well done.

Anonymous said...

that was the best proformance i have ever seen. i would see it again but i cant.
nudity cool!!