Julia 3 ~ theatre notes

Monday, September 13, 2004

Julia 3

Julia 3 by Michael Gurr. Directed by Bruce Myles, with Kate Fitzpatrick, Peter Curtin, Todd MacDonald and Greg Stone. Designed by Christina Smith, lighting design by Glenn Hughes, sound design Andrew Pendlebury. Playbox at the Malthouse Theatre, until September 25.

In the past, Michael Gurr's plays have left me either bored out of my skull or shaking with rage. Or both. Given my extreme reactions, I have sometimes wondered if Gurr represents everything I fear in myself about being a middle class writer with a humanitarian conscience.

Julia 3 gave me a chance to look again in this dark mirror. In this play, directed with a stylish minimalism by Bruce Myles, Kate Fitzpatrick plays a wealthy philanthropist who invites her three lovers - recipients of the favours of her foundation, as well as her bed - to her husband's funeral. Her husband represents, I suppose, Global Capitalism (he has "no character", but he has lots of money, a predatory sexual attraction towards third world children and a karmic cancer). The three lovers represent Science (Greg Stone), Culture (Peter Curtin) and Literature (Todd MacDonald). Julia herself, if we are to follow the allegory - if, indeed, it is an allegory - is the desperately compromised human conscience, haunted by the world's evils and attempting to change what she can.

Gentle reader, I confess; I was mainly bored. But I must be growing up, for I didn't walk out spitting with anger. Instead, Julia 3 left me worrying at a bunch of questions. For instance: is this play really as vacuous as it appears to be, or is Gurr being ironic? Has he in fact written an attack on the covert corruption of the liberal humanist, pointing out the complacency of the cultural imperialism which writes the whole world in the West's image? Or, instead, is he serious when he seems to be saying that nice rich people can change the world, by arranging the murders of the nasty rich people who cause all the suffering?

If he's serious on that last point, which is possible, the play begs a lot of questions. For instance - global capitalism is surely not a phenomenon driven, like a nineteenth century steel mill, by a top-hatted Captain of Industry, but a staggeringly complicated, gargantuan network of financial forces and institutions. Gurr is certainly not advocating structural change - the money can stay where it is, it seems, as long as it behaves decently to those less fortunate than itself. Or is it that the assassinations are supposed to be ironic, the ultimate corruption: capitalism turning on itself, like a senile mother cat eating her kittens?

But then again, if Gurr is being ironic, why all the conscience tweaking, the endless descriptions of third world suffering, those poor Others who live in appalling circumstances because of Us? And (more insidiously) why is Charlie the writer, a young man with pretensions worthy of the pen of Stella Gibbons, the only representative of Western culture who gets away with a shred of moral probity? (More troubling still, he is writing a book of ponderous ineffability, about Love...)

So it is that I can't get any purchase on this work; my mind glides off it. Watching it, I found myself gloomily remembering Harold Pinter's 1996 play Ashes to Ashes, which inhabits similar territory to Julia 3. But unlike Gurr, Pinter can take the minutae and superficialities of middle class life and reveal its hidden profundities, its beauty and and its atrocity.

Ashes to Ashes is a dialogue between a man and a woman in a drawing room, a conversation which keeps circling around an infidelity. Pinter ritualises the dialogue, which is allusive, evasive and, indefinably, more and more threatening, until he is able to make a real imaginative connection between the atrocities of Nazi Germany and this drawing room conversation. He builds towards a profoundly intimate sense of shock, which illuminates Hannah Arendt's argument about the banality of evil with a new emotional understanding.

Like Mountain Language, another of Pinter's later political works, Ashes to Ashes is a poetic play which deals with questions of moral complicity. But Pinter takes Emily Dickinson's advice, and tells the truth slant. His moral and political subtleties highlight what is fuzzy or badly thought through in Gurr's work; and most importantly, as a dramatist Pinter generates a charge of feeling which is seriously lacking in Julia 3.

It troubled me also that Gurr does not question the actual representation of atrocity. It is enough, he suggests, to describe it, to imagine it, to be aware of the "soft avalanche of disasters" which fill the morning newspapers. Yet the representation of atrocity as we know it becomes a kind of voyeurism, yet another form of exploitation; even, perhaps, a subtle form of colonisation, in which the victim as abject Other is enfolded into a wholly Western subjectivity. This is never questioned in this play. And the constant iteration of suffering in Julia's monologues has, like its equivalent on the news, an anaesthetic effect.

Gurr has written a poetic play, the kind of drama which depends on metaphorical connections and a dynamic of feeling, rather than more conventional dramatic machineries. My problem with it is that it contains scarcely any poetry. Aside from a little time travel between the present of the funeral and six months before, Julia 3 seldom pushes its realities beyond the literal. What does stay with me from the play is a dreamlike monologue in which Julia describes buying a hairbrush from a woman in a department store whose name tag has "apostrophes in it".

She began to brush her hair to show me how soft and delightful it was. And as she brushed, the blood began to come. First in drops, then in clusters and streams.... She wanted me to have the best. And by the time I left the blood was in her eyes and she had to blink it out, that black-red blood spreading from her scalp to her neck, but she never stopped smiling and she never stopped brushing.

This speech conjures a more complex subjective reality than is otherwise offered, and for me signalled a point where the writing began to become alive, to truly imagine itself, and the horror Gurr had been attempting to describe in monologue after desensitising monologue at last became visceral and disturbing.

(A serendipitous aside: while thinking about this, I stumbled across an interview with the performance artist Marina Abramovic. She describes her work Art must be beautiful, Artist must be beautiful thus: "I brush my hair with a metal brush held in my right hand and simultaneously comb my hair with a metal comb held in my left hand. While so doing, I continuously repeat: 'Art must be beautiful. Artist must be beautiful', until I have destroyed my hair and face".)

I realise it's unfair to worry the play to the exclusion of the production, especially as it has a fine design and a committed cast. Kate Fitzpatrick is so well cast the part might have been written for her, and she is ably supported by her "gentlemen", despite the thinness of the characters they must play. Peter Curtin gives a complex and humane performance as Leon, the art curator who is making his own compromises, and Greg Stone is all aggression and testosterone as the oncologist Joe. Todd MacDonald does his best as the young writer Charlie, and I really don't think he is responsible for the fact that his character annoys me beyond measure.

In Christina Smith's design, the stage of the Beckett is at first shrouded by a black theatre curtain. But instead of the curtain rising when the play begins, it is lit from behind, so it becomes a funereary veil, an image which beautifully introduces the notion that the whole of this reality exists within Julia's mind. And there was one moment of extraordinary stage magic - a newspaper on a table, its pages turning by themselves, as if it were being read by a ghost.

Kate Fitzpatrick and Greg Stone in Julia 3. Picture: Ponch Hawkes

Playbox Theatre Company

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