Review: The Swimming Club ~ theatre notes

Monday, February 08, 2010

Review: The Swimming Club

Hannie Rayson's new play, The Swimming Club, picks up the classic trope of middle-aged friends reuniting to relive their youth. Six people who met on a Greek island in their 20s gather again on Lesbos at 50, giving them plenty of opportunity to quote Sappho and Homer, or at least to mention the Iliad.

This kind of play is in the tradition of theatre holding "a mirror up to nature". The charm is supposedly that, as an audience member, I see my personal situation amplified on stage. About halfway through the first act, it dawned on me that I was in the target age-group.

I had been thinking that it was about people rather older than I am, an impression reinforced by the casting. For instance John Waters, who plays PR flack Dave Flinders, is, whatever the text says, at least a decade past 50.

The text plays bingo with every sociological cliche about middle age that ever peppered an opinion page, and includes a bonus goth rebel teen called Sappho (Megan Holloway). As the play's central character Kate Morton (Angela Punch McGregor) exclaims several times, "We are so bourgeois!"

This "we" has hefty mortgages, and teenage children in private schools who have ponies and ballet lessons. Or they were rockstar hippy chicks who began Lonely Planet-style publishing companies or became millionaire entrepeneurs. The characters are, I suppose, having midlife crises: cancer, divorce, disappointment. Certainly, they have the global financial crisis.

Most of all, they long for the sunny, innocent days when they were young and free and wild and splashing about with their friends in the Aegean, before carelessly motorcycling over to Troy (or maybe swimming to Turkey). Did I mention they were young and free?

The Swimming Club presents a fantasy vision of the post-boomer generation and will no doubt do for some of us what David Williamson did for the generation before. Kate Cherry's production does the job, if at times a little clumsily, on an elegant, sand-floored set that acts as a canvas for some very beautiful lighting effects.

Rayson overdoes her repetitions, which bogs down action that otherwise might flow more freely. And she rather oversalts the classical references - what does the Iliad, the original epic war poem, have to do with anything, really? Was it mentioned so often because no one had got around to reading The Odyssey - which, after all, has much more to do with aging? But there is a lightness and polish in the dialogue that gives it some welcome sparkle.

The play's worst flaw is a complete lack of structure, which means panic sets in through the second act. Scene follows scene in a way that could conceivably go on indefinitely, with new plot points turning up every 15 minutes. As it is, the play burbles on for almost three hours, rather like a myopic, well-meaning uncle looking for the exit door, and is saved only by recourse to deus ex machina. One for the Rayson fans.

This review is published in today's Australian.

The Swimming Club by Hannie Rayson, directed by Kate Cherry. Designed by Christina Smith, lighting by Matt Scott, sound design by Russell Goldsmith. With Tina Bursill, Caroline Gillmer, Megan Holloway, Nicholas Papademetriou, Angel Punch McGregor, Igor Sas and John Waters. Melbourne Theatre Company and Black Swan State Theatre Company. Sumner Theatre, Melbourne. Until March 14. Playhouse Theatre, Perth, March 27-April 18.


Anonymous said...

Um, what exactly did David Williamson do for us boomers, I wonder?

Alison Croggon said...

(Pointing to the non-inclusive syntax...) The wisdom is that Williamson put "us" on stage so we could "see ourselves".

Paul K said...

I've heard from several independent sources that this is one to give a wide berth.

Considering I'm neither a boomer nor a Rayson devotee, I think I'll heed their advice.

Anonymous said...

Well, I suppose. The woman I saw Don's Party with in 1960 something took the portrayal of Don's wife as a personal insult, so there may be some truth in the wisdom ... Other than that the non-inclusiveness is very far-reaching, I would have thought.

Alison Croggon said...

Well, quite. I wasn't claiming it as my wisdom. The most common criticisms of my (and others') criticisms of Williamson's work is, however, precisely that he puts middle class Australians on stage so they can laugh at themselves, and only arty snobs would take exception to something that sells so many tickets. Or something like that, anyway.

Anonymous said...

As a member of the demographic who are supposed to be put on stage in this way, I'm with you! (Though I did enjoy everything up to about The Club.

Anonymous said...

Alison Croggon I think you are neglecting your non-twitter acolytes and I am very upset.

I know you have a life too, but I don't care.

I don't have a life. Why should you?

Write more things.


Alison Croggon said...

I'm sorry Anon. But you can't blame Twitter for my blog slowdown (about which you have been duly warned). I have other writerly duties, and this year I am prioritising them over the blog. I am in fact writing quite long things in sentences of more than 140 characters... but not, presently, here!

Alison Croggon said...

I feel that I ought to add that I love doing this blog, and intend to keep doing it. Just not to post every day...

Geoffrey said...

I agree with Anon (5.58pm)!

Anonymous said...

Hmm, thanks. I am waiting the arrival of this masterpiece in the West (has it opened? have I missed it?). I heard it from several sources in Melbourne that this was quite the worst piece of theatre they have endured in their entire theatrical lives and that it is/was/will be an INSULT to anyone under 75. I was looking forward to a boot up the bum, a full set of arrows in the Greco-roman bosom, but you are really quite nice about it, given the weakness in concept, plot, directing, casting that you outline.

Ms Rayson does not have fans on the West Coast, so it will be interesting to see if that makes everyone really nasty or quite nice about it all. Have to wait and see.

Above all I fear boredom.

Alison Croggon said...

I've seen worse, believe me. Some of them by Hannie Rayson.

Not sure about the ageism there, Anon. Why is it ok to serve pap to people over 75?

Alison Croggon said...

Whoops. Pressed the wrong button and accidentally deleted Anon's reply:

Oh, I see - re: ageism, was specifically responding to the idea that the casting was rather out in terms of what you wrote was the overall age of the characters and the intended identification of the audience with them etc. Not suggesting pap for the aged at all. Must be clearer, sorry'

No problems. I think the aged (where we all, hopefully, are heading) deserve good theatre as much as the next Gen Z, or whatever it is - but I see your point. Btw, I'll save your comment for the next time someone accuses me of being nasty...