Review: Ruben Guthrie, Skin Tight ~ theatre notes

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Review: Ruben Guthrie, Skin Tight

Yes, there is life after David Williamson. It must be said that lately the man has been hard to ignore: even John Bailey found himself adding, with an air of bewilderment, to the pile of words surrounding his latest play. "I can't think of another local play, great or rubbish," says Bailey, that has "provoked so many words from commentators, or [has been] given so much space in the public sphere". No, neither can I. And resisting that mind-numbing vortex proved impossible, even for stern-minded aesthetes such as myself.

If anything proves the marginalisation of theatre in Australia, it's that Williamson - presumably the only recognisable name outside the theatre culture - still so dominates the general discourse. Why is it so, when there's so much more interesting stuff to see or talk about? Take Ruben Guthrie, for instance, presently enjoying a season directed by the playwright, Brendan Cowell, at Red Stitch.

This play has everything Williamson's lacks - wit, energy, emotion, complexity. And it's a play, goddamit. It doesn't even faintly resemble the "non naturalistic" theatre that Williamson, despite all the evidence to the contrary, claims is driving his work off Australian stages. It has characters and plot. It has a beginning, middle and end. If it were on a main stage, not even the most conservative theatre nerd could argue that it wasn't mainstream.

The most immediate difference between Ruben Guthrie and Don Parties On is that Cowell's play is a lot more fun. The second is that its exploration of its chosen theme, the nature of addiction, is a lot more thoughtful. It seems to come from a living mind: from the opening moment, when alcoholic advertising whizz and relationship disaster Ruben Guthrie (Daniel Frederiksen) arrogantly addresses his first AA meeting, the energy is pitched high, and it never slackens for the two hour duration of the show.

The story follows Ruben Guthrie's attempt to sober up. His professional success has been all about excess: it has rewarded him with a top creative job with a mega salary, supermodel girlfriend Zoya (Anna Samson) and harbour views. We meet him at a moment of crisis: his girlfriend, sick of his narcissistic self-destructiveness, leaves him, and he has broken his arm jumping off a roof in a moment of alcohol-fuelled abandon. He goes cold turkey, and immediately discovers that his entire life - work and play - is predicated on alcohol. His boss Ray (David Whitely) isn't interested in the new sober Ruben; his best friend Damian (Simon Maiden) can't bear his not drinking, and even his irritably separated parents (Dennis Coard and Andrea Swifte) think he's a wowser for going teetotal.

Desperately seeking to replace the world he is rejecting, Guthrie meets Virginia (Erin Dewar), former speed addict, and enters the 12-step plan with a vengeance. It's soon clear that he is replacing one addiction with another. Both are evasions of the real issues that drive his catastrophic instincts: the emotional poverties of his life as a high-flying creative are neatly complemented by the empty jargonistic platitudes of his new sobriety. It's not much of a choice: each of the options open to him is a kind of death. What hovers teasingly beyond this stark binary is the never-realised possibility of a engaged life, but only Zoya - beating her own demons - is able to pick this up. She is, in a sardonic note, the character who leaves Australia.

Since it premiered in 2008 this play has had two hit seasons at Belvoir St, and the polish of previous incarnations is amply evident in this production. The script is sharp and supple, achieving a nice balance between comedy, satire and genuine pathos. Cowell's slick production picks it up and goes for it. Peter Mumford's elegant set - designer shelves stacked with designer liquor - permits the action to move swiftly and legibly from one scene to another.

The evening is inevitably dominated by Frederiksen's turbo-charged portrayal of Guthrie, but this is in fact an ensemble production: there's not a weak performance in it. And there are memorable theatrical moments: my favourite is the image of Ruben Guthrie and his father Peter in hospital robes with saline drips, smuggling a flask of liquor under their robes. For a moment, the stage is almost Beckett.

Definitely a don't miss. Life would be a lot more exciting if more of the mainstream looked like this.

Over at Fortyfive Downstairs, there's an interesting production of Skin Tight, by New Zealand playwright Gary Henderson. There's no doubting the energy of this one, which begins with an erotic all-in wrestle between performers Holly Shanahan and Michael Whalley, and continues with a highly stylised physical production that traces the history of a marriage, from its early pre-war years to the ill-health and death of the aging couple.

The striking design places the action in traverse. Lush red curtains open to a narrow angled stage strewn with clothes. The play's time and place - country New Zealand from early to middle last century - is suggested by phonograph music and minimal props. An iron wash tub is filled with water and apples: the water acts as a metaphor for sensuality, the apples for appetite. And there's a pathos in the idea of an old man bathing his ill wife but seeing his young lover, a la Pierre Bonnard, that, even if it doesn't quite emerge, is beautiful.

My major problem is the soft-focus lyricism of the play itself, which never escapes a pervasive sentimentality. I couldn't shake the feeling that I'd seen this play several times before, (although I can't think where); it's full of familiar tropes, and you know from almost the very beginning exactly what is going to happen in the end. This needn't be a problem, but here it is.

The production set up an increasingly bizarre disconnect between the language and performance: although the performance seems to be about articulating the play's subtextual passion, I never felt the passion in the text. Rather than excavating a truthfulness from its play, I felt that most of the time the production was flailing around looking for it. Awkward touches, such as the introduction of an older actor (Karl Peschek) in the play's final moments, add to its lack of focus.

All the same, in the moments where performances strikes truthfully - mainly moments of physical play - the show achieves a genuine power. Both Shanahan and Whalley are actors to watch, and their full-on sensual intensity means this show is worth a look.

Picture: From left: Erin Dewar, Daniel Frederiksen and Anna Samson, from Ruben Guthrie.

Ruben Guthrie, written and directed by Brendan Cowell. Design by Peter Mumford, lighting by Stelios Karagiannis, sound by Marlene Samosn and Jonathan Shaw. With Daniel Frederiksen, Anna Samson, David Whiteley, Dennis Coard, Erin Dewar, Andrea Swifte and Simon Maiden. Red Stitch until March 5.

Skin Tight,
by Gary Henderson, directed by Justin Martin. Lighting design by Marco Resondeck, sound design by Jared Lewis, choreography by Tom Hodgson. With Holly Shanahan, Michael Whalley and Karl Peschek.
SaySIX Theatre and The Groundswell Division, @ Fortyfive Downstairs until February 11.


Anonymous said...

Oh Alison. Did you really compare Brendan Cowell's theatrical imagery to Beckett's?

Ruben Guthrie was great, but come on.

I want to take vast amounts of sleeping medication.

Alison Croggon said...

You've seen the Red Stitch production? Think about that image for a moment...

Anonymous said...

Yes Alison, your enthusiasm for Ruben Guthrie - a play which is OK - must be a hangover from dragging yourself from the Williamson.

Alison Croggon said...

Hmm. On its owns terms, it succeeds very well, I believe. And yes, they are the same terms as those on Williamson claims to succeed. So...?