The Grenade ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Grenade

I've not the time nor, I confess, the incentive, to do a long blog review of the MTC production of Tony McNamara's The Grenade, which opened last week at the Playhouse. So, for those who are interested, here's what I wrote for yesterday's Australian. It begins:

THE Grenade is the sort of play that makes me wonder why people don't stay home and watch Arrested Development on their widescreen TV. Television does this stuff so much better; and besides, you can order pizza.

It's not as if it's a bad play. Although Tony McNamara is an unashamedly populist playwright, he's a cut above a David Williamson. He sets up stereotypes in order to explode them with the unexpected, and there is a cruel edge to some of his comedy that, at a stretch, could enter an Ortonesque universe.

But this is comedy that reassures, and any promising subversion is despatched quickly. As Bertolt Brecht said, "The bourgeois theatre's performances always aim at smoothing over contradictions, at creating false harmony, at idealisation".

The Grenade is bourgeois theatre par excellence, and part of me wearies of pointing out that its function is to anaesthetise its audience's anxieties about themselves and the world. After all, why shouldn't theatre have the same function as several cocktails?

The only thing I didn't discuss - 400 words isn't a lot - was the performances, which I thought pretty good, from a fine cast notable for some interesting new faces. Garry McDonald is always fun to watch, but he seemed here a little lost in the stylistic confusion - was he playing it for real, or playing it for laughs? I thought the most successful performances were those that played against the naturalism, like Jolyon James, who played the erotica writer/pornstar/ex-soldier/21st century hippy as if he were something in The Mighty Boosh. Anyway, over to you.

24 comments:

Helena said...

Could not the same be said about your Books of Pellinor? That is, that the cinema does fantasy a whole lot better than a novel does? We can watch it in 3D and we can get popcorn?

I in fact like your Books of Pellinor - I like the solitude of my own imaginings that spring from your unique and compelling stories just as I dare say, some people like the sense of community and shared experience and laughter from seeing a comedy live as part of a large audience and not on their TVs.

It's pretty clear from your reviews and your blog that domestic middle-class comedy is not your thing (even great ones like August: Osage County). It's a democracy, it's your website, knock yourself out.

But why attack the playwright and theatre artists' attempt to even create such a work? You'd rather watch Arrested Development at home on your widescreen? Should they just give up now then because you have spoken thus?

By all means, go nuts on your site about why you neither have the time or incentive to write about this kind of theatre but when reviewing for a national newspaper, I would argue that your job is review the play and the production for what it is. Rather than engage with what the play attempted to do (other than state "it's not as if it's a bad play"), you instead use your word limit as a platform for your prejudice against populism and narrative drama and your ability to google Brecht quotations. Your reviews read as: "I think all theatre should contain crocodiles; this production contained no crocodiles; this piece of theatre is therefore a waste of time."

That you would review this play poorly (I have seen it and sentimental as the ending may be, found it pretty vicious, twisted and amusing - its intent nor its effect was anaesthetic as you maintain) was inevitable. Julian Meyrick was onto something when he posited that readers can predict your reviews. Malthouse - rave, MTC - m'eh! (I note your review of Elizabeth in particular - I agree it was a sumptuous production with valiant performances but most people I know who have seen it found it as funny as cancer). And let's not get started on commercial theatre or musicals which also have no place amidst your ideas of what theatre should be. What a crime that people be entertained! Maybe it's time for you to re-read John McGrath's "A Good Night Out - Popular Theatre: Audience, Class and Form) or even Brook's chapter about rough theatre in "The Empty Space"! Or the other Brooks (Mel) on why critics hate comedy.

Not all theatre needs to taste like a bucket of broken glass, if some of it tastes like several cocktails so be it. I think McNamara was serving something more akin to absinthe with its heady absurdism but clearly, that's not a drink for you.

You have a wonderful way with words Alison, you're smart, we get that your taste is to more structurally interesting material. That's all good. But pleeeease, take a leaf out of the work of critics like Ben Brantley, Charles Ishwerwood, Susannah Clapp, Benedict Nightingale, John Lahr, Robert Brustein, John McCallum who try to actually review rather than place their hands firmly on their hips and tell theatre makers what they are doing is pointless because it doesn't accord to the "critic's" view of world and of what theatre should be.

Or stay at home and watch Arrested Development if you're so weary of other people's attempts to create something for a live audience that engages, resonates and god help us, amuses.

Anonymous said...

I imagine readers could predict (or thought they could) which way a Kenneth Tynan review would skew based on venue, as well. That didn't make them any less vital.

Please, Miss Croggon, don't take any pages out of the Ish's rather limited and scabarous book. Not that you ever would.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Helena - thanks for your comment, which has probably set a record for length. Thanks too for liking my fantasy books, but I'd prefer not to defend or critique my own work, which is for the privacy of my own study. They belong to other people now, and whether they like them or not isn't up to me.

I'm not sure that you're very familiar with the critics you're suggesting I emulate. Some of them can make my critique look like the quality of mercy: I certainly try to stay away from the snarky excesses of someone like Christopher Isherwood. The only one of those whom I really think worth emulating is Robert Brustein: I don't suppose you've read his scathing review of Shaffer's Amadeus?

I could point to more than a few reviews here in which I have been most enthusiastic about comedy, "narrative drama" and even, as it happens, musicals. Search out, say, my review of the MTC's The Drowsy Chaperone earlier this year. Nor, as you clearly know from my own work, am I averse to populism. I found The Grenade a little tedious and, ultimately, a little disheartening in its willingness to pander to the audience, despite all the talent around and in it. I said that McNamara is a good writer, and possibly Ortonesque, but I found this one anodyne. As I said, "I couldn't get enthusiastic about this, but I couldn't hate it either. It is a class above most work of its kind, and will appeal to many." Which is hardly saying it's "pointless". Other people can see and enjoy it without fear of my punching them in the nose.

In any case, I thought it a rather mild review, and am kind of surprised that it's read as "going nuts"(!) I am a little weary of pointing out what this kind of theatre does; sometimes I wish I had something new to say, but that only happens when the work offers the opportunity. I certainly have read Brecht's essays (and for that matter Brook and McGrath) and I think Brecht does a good job of describing what that theatre is. My own aesthetic does indeed run elsewhere, although I'd hesitate to describe it as thinking all theatre should "taste like a bucket of broken glass". But since, like all critics, I have nothing but my own sensibility to write from, I fear that's what I'll continue to do. Thanks to the democracy of blogs, my commentators can go nuts in disagreeing with me: and that is a fine thing, which I call culture.

Alison Croggon said...

PS Thanks Anon.

Alison Croggon said...

PPS Slightly worried that I'm gratuitously dissing my critical colleagues en masse. I'll take my place next any of them, and take issue with all of them at times, but disrespect only where said and intended. What I meant was Brustein does work that sets the highest benchmark of quality. He was also a formative influence on my own approach.

Alison Croggon said...

Worse, I mistook Charles Isherwood for Christopher. Posthumous apologies to Christopher Isherwood. Note to self: have a coffee before responding to comments...

Michael said...

Holy Moly. Where to begin. What a piece of crap! I know, sophisticated. But I’m not a reviewer; I’m a paying audience member. And I’m referring to the play, not your review, which was spot on…you hit the nail on the head in your first paragraph. It was like watching a TV show...not even a good TV show like Arrested Development...more like All Together Now (which I believe McNamara wrote an episode for once). It was passive. It lacked any kind of theatricality. I kept asking myself: Why is this on stage? Why the hell am I watching this in a theatre? Within 5 minutes of it starting we could see what kind of an evening we were in for.

And what a waste of combined talents! This was my first glimpse of Garry McDonald on stage, and true he was fine, but still. Mitchell Butel was fine to begin with but when he made his appearance before the end of the first act he suddenly camped it up, which was a complete change to his first scenes, so much so that I didn’t recognise him until he suddenly turned ‘queen-y’ and gave himself away. The mother seemed out of her league and a bit at sea. The Neighbours girl tried but seemed a bit forced and her weird school friend was a little too old and over the top to be considered realistic (considering the others weren't pushing the realms of realism with their characterisation). This leaves the soldier/porn star/author, the ultimate slap in the face of credibility. On his entrance and his embrace of Garry McDonald's character with his hippy sounding voice and laidback attitude it was one cliché after the other with him. He’s usually found in sitcoms but would be the ex-boyfriend of the hot girlfriend now dating the mean-spirited schlub who’s the lead. The ex would ooze good feelings, wouldn’t be petty, would be handsome, funny, charming…and have a great rapport with the girlfriend, making the lead schlub more and more jealous and petty and angry, leading to outburst after outburst, all of which happened here…when the wife turned and said something like ‘I don’t like handsome men’ I heard the canned laughter of some bad sitcom…then had to pinch myself as I realised it was real laughter from the audience.

Severe disappointment. This from the author of many great Love my Way episodes (which is one of the greatest TV drama series made) steeped in naturalism and true to life characters and, yes, humour. And he came up with this!? It was insulting to our intelligence as an audience and the collective theatre going public...do we really want to pay to see this kind of theatre? No.

The other sad point is that this is the second original Australian play this season for MTC and it was as bad if not worse than the woeful production of The Swimming Club earlier this year, which was itself an example of bad TV making bad theatre. I’m not holding my breath for David Williamson’s Let the Sunshine…

I remember at the subscription launch for MTC that last year’s audiences wanted something lighter or more escapist…but this!? You can still have lightness in a play without it turning to lazy theatre…

I am not embarrassed to say that we walked out at interval…and we have never walked out of a play at interval…we have been tempted…Moonlight and Magnolias and The Birthday Party (both MTC last season) pushed us to our limits but this was just the end of the line. What added to the insult for me was that a couple of hours earlier we had seen OA’s production of Bliss. A new Australian work (true, it is based on an existing work) but still, a glorious production. Now, I didn’t love it but it was original, daring, beautiful…and made me proud that it was in fact an Australian work. But to then see The Grenade and it’s scraping of the bottom of the cliché barrel. And worse…the audience around us was appreciating the dumbing down of their theatrical experience, laughing and encouraging it all.

P.S.
Speaking of Isherwood and the experience we endured during The Grenade, this recent article of his seems quite appropriate

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/17/theater/17oddman.html?ref=theater

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Michael - thanks for that. It's good to hear your perspective. I do think that Arrested Development is a very funny show, if anyone's wondering...

Thanks too for the link (live here if anyone wants to click). Every critic is familiar with the experience Isherwood writes about. Billington called it, in a memorable phrase, "mutinous isolation".

Alison Croggon said...

By the way (I'm clearly thinking in afterthoughts today), I did think The Grenade better than The Swimming Club. And I don't doubt it's better than Let The Sunshine. I do think it's kind of sad, given the variety of plays around, that these three examples of contemporary Australian plays are those that have reached the largest theatre audience in the city this year. It might account for some of the bashing of performance writers I've seen recently on literary blogs (in connection with the NSW Premiers Prize), from people who are not theatre nerds and so only see occasional shows.

Having re-read Helena's comment, I thought I should provide a helpful link to the review of The Drowsy Chaperone, since it shows that my "predictable" prejudice, if that is what it is, isn't necessarily against the MTC, musical theatre, entertainment or even fun. If, that is, I think it's well done.

Toby said...

Wow... Michael you're hardcore.
You even give the audience a bad review.
I love it.
"...I heard the canned laughter of some bad sitcom…then had to pinch myself as I realised it was real laughter from the audience."

Maybe you planted the grenade?

4 Coffins said...

Alison stop freaking out - you're a great reviewer. I think what frustrated you was a conservatism that we don't like to see in theatre of any sort. There is an inherent lack of risk (and therefore excitement?) to a project like this. Drowsy was a sure-fire hit but there was still an element of risk to it, if for no other reason than it was obviously expensive (Rush, Nevin, Birchmore, Jacobson...) and had to be successful, and also was warm and beautiful without being needlessly validdating. But it was also a new musical not many had heard of with a patchy production history, a mega-budget and some themes which were actually a little bit dangerous to play with - which made the payoff all the more sweet.

Peter Evans directed this and of course we expect a little bit more risk from him (wait for The Ugly One?). I think it had the potential to act as a critique of protectionism, a very relevant idea. But perhaps this was deemed too close to home for many audience members... The set was technologically risky but we don't really go to the theatre to see technology perform, and it was a little disheartening to watch the set slowly roll around in a way that suggested marvel without producing it.

I wondered if there was some cutting? It's a new work, after all. Possibly there were a few teething issues?

Some healthy comments on these being the three plays to reach the widest audience. And it does seem a shame with so much talent available and ready to pour themselves into their plays. (Not that Tony McNamara didn't... it just felt a bit... low on love?)

Alison Croggon said...

4 Coffins, you make me laugh. Was I freaking out? Maybe I was at a low ebb yesterday. Ok, I'll stop at once.

Anonymous said...

Frankly I don’t like anything you do, but I did read that review after being chastised brutally by you and your brutalist rat pack. Why bother reviewing the play when you are obviously not disposed to that genre. Do you really need $500? You come across as patronizing. I have zero interest in theatre. It’s over – like cubism & silent movies. That it receives the official funding it does as opposed to lowbrow activities like rock/folk absurd/music is mind-boggling. Who cares about France, or France’s theatre culture? France, which conveniently surrendered to the Nazi’s so expediently.
Stephen Cummings

Alison Croggon said...

Gadzooks, Stephen: do you just come to visit when you feel a bile haemorrhage coming on? I hope you recover soon.

I sometimes wonder if I should take this sort of comment down, but no doubt the commenter would think it was to protect myself. It's more a feeling that someone is embarrassing him (it's usually a him) self and will feel sorry later. But then again, maybe they won't be embarrassed and maybe they deserve whatever they get.

Alison Croggon said...

PS A little puzzled about the brutal chastisement you mention. I don't recalling brutally chastising you at any point in my life.

A Rat said...

Stephen, Stephen, Stephen...

I think someone needs a hug.

Lucy said...

This play was so incredibly disappointing. Just another to add to the list of reasons why once I'm not eligible for youth tickets, I will no longer subscribe. I understand the desire to see something light and entertaining and can see that these are included in programming in response to audience feedback. I can think of a number of comedies I have seen in recent years that I have found wonderfully entertaining, but, unfortunately none of these include anything I've seen at the MTC. I haven't been in Melbourne for very long and may have just been unlucky and missed the good productions in recent years, but from what I have experienced, it is enough to lose a young subscriber.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Lucy - I totally see your pov. But don't let your disappointment mean that you miss Richard III. I loved it, and so did my daughter...

Peter said...

I don't have much to add other than to thank you for your review Alison, and to say that so far I have found this MTC season to be incredibly disappointing (as others have said).

I think you hit the nail on the head when you said that the playwright gives us the (most outrageous and offensive) stereotypes, elicits a few gags using said stereotypes, and toys ever so briefly with subverting them. Ultimately however, this play only serves to reinforce said stereotypes. I was quite deeply offended, and wished that I had had bitten the bullet and left at interval (as I did with swimming club).

Shame on MTC, and on whoever wrote this tripe. I am considering sending an email to MTC to complain.

Jorge Tsipos said...

I think this review is spot on. As a student of theatre and a budding actor I was incredibly disheartened to see this production on at the MTC. I remember describing it to a friend as a movie-length episode of Two and a Half Men. Boring and predictable it made me feel sorry for the actors on stage going through the motions. My mother, who I saw it with, actually said "I don't want to go to the theatre to think," well, mission accomplished then.

peterAcross said...

The Grenade just opened in Sydney - here is my review.

Tony McNamara’s new play, aptly titled ‘The Grenade’ explores what happens when you come home and find a grenade in your living room. Although real the grenade is obviously a metaphor for the unexpressed: desire, anger, lack of trust and paranoia that fuel us poor humans.
The plot: Busby McTavish (Garry McDonald), is one of those political hatchet men who will do anything, say anything to keep his Premier in power, aided and sometimes abetted by his camp offsider Whitman (Mitchell Butel). His second wife and sometime author of cheap romance fiction, Sally (Belinda Bromilow), fresh from the nunnery and having just given birth to Busby’s second child, the never seen Esperanto speaking, bird eating three month old, and stepmother to his first Lola (Eloise Mignon), the eccentric genius who longs to be a normal bad girl, like all the others at her private school. Lola is in love with Wheat (Gig Clarke), another quirky boy-child with a bent for conspiracy theories. Enter Randy Savage (Bert Labonte`) possible soldier of fortune, free thinker and uninhibited new age writer of erotica who helps Sally unleash the inner whore and you have the makings of an off-beat, fast paced comedy about a family falling apart.
Well that’s the plan anyway; however things don’t always go to plan in the theatre or in life.
Heavy handed direction (Peter Evans), broad acting, some shrill performances and a revolve that is just too busy for it’s on good combine to make this one of those nights at the theatre that leave you wondering “why bother.” On a set (Richard Roberts) worthy of a channel seven tele-drama the six actors strut and fret for two hours of my life that I will never get back.
Let me say upfront that I actually like Tony McNamara’s work, his play ‘The Great’ was a standout success for me at the STC in 2008 and his other works including The Café Latte kid and The Recruit are all worth a viewing. However this particular offering does not live up to the promise of previous work. The Grenade is all pop and no powder. It sits meekly between an indifferent Williamson play and a mediocre Neil Simon not a happy spot to sit. I was surprised as I left the ‘Oprah House’ to see the Harbour Bridge; I was really expecting to see the suburban red brick houses of Marian St.
Sure the play was met with roars of laughter from some of the first-nighters but I defy anyone to remember one line of dialogue or one true emotion thirty seconds after leaving the foyer.
The thing is that it isn’t a bad play it just isn’t a good play. I realise my reaction may be coloured by just having seen True West (STC) and Namatjira (Belvoir St), two of the best productions I have seen all year so it makes it hard for a froth and bubble comedy to follow them.
Yes I get that the play is a satire, a play about living life in the moment and feeling every breath as if it is your last but there is no subtlety, no light and shade in this production. The truth is the play lacks a heart. Why would any of us emotionally engage with any of the characters when they have no depth? A few of us were hoping that someone would actually pull the pin on the grenade so we all could all escape home to watch Mel’s final moments in ‘Packed to the Rafters.’
The Grenade plays at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House until 12 December.

www.peteracross.wordpress.com

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks Peter - that's fairly comprehensive...

shawjonathan said...

I just walked out of the Sydney production at interval. Your review was far too kind, Alison, unless perhaps the performances have degenerated since May. I now realise that 'shrill' is not necessarily a sexist criticism, as the shrillness here didn't come from the women.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Jonathan - I wouldn't be surprised if the performances had degenerated. From what I've heard, it sounds as if the cast are now all mugging desperately. It's a shame you couldn't have seen Richard III instead!