Review: The Gift ~ theatre notes

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Review: The Gift

*NB: Major spoilers after the fold*

Deadpan irony is a perilous art. Australians are reflexively ironic, and can find themselves disconcerted when the irony doesn't carry, when a flip statement intended by its very outrageousness to highlight some absurdity or injustice is, contrary to its intention, read straight. This is particularly perilous when spoken statements make it into print. For example, Joanna Murray-Smith caused a minor flutter last week with a Q and A in the Sunday Age in which she was asked what it was like, as a writer, to be in a female "minority".

"The trouble is that most women are much more interested in getting the darn ironing under control, or shopping for something cute to get into when hubby gets home from the office," said Murray-Smith. "Guys are just a whole lot more likely to be geniuses. You can't fight human nature." Jaws dropped all over Melbourne, emails were emailed, tweets were tweeted. Surely, they all said, she can't be serious? Surely? And no, of course she wasn't serious: she was dropping some heavy irony, perhaps tired of being asked a stupid question yet again, and it didn't translate into the straight-up-and-down, toneless format of the quiz.

Her plays, especially her dramas, can prompt the same reaction, and here the question is much more complex. She is at her best as a comic writer (and in her monologues for particular performers, such as Bombshells or Songs for Nobodies), and at her weakest when she attempts drama. Her new play The Gift is a largely unsuccessful shot at combining satire and drama, switching to more serious concerns in the second act. You read Murray-Smith's plays without irony at your peril, but the nagging question, "surely she can't be serious?", has a long shadow in this play.

The Gift is a tale of a friendship between two couples that unfolds in real time conversation - in a bar, on a boat, in an apartment. Ed (Richard Piper) and Sadie (Heather Bolton) are self-made millionaires, childless and comfortably middle-aged. On a break at a thousand-dollar-a-night resort in the tropics they meet Martin (Matt Dyktynski) and Chloë (Elizabeth Debicki), the former a struggling conceptual artist, the latter a wannabe writer, who have won a holiday in a raffle.

Mutually attracted, the couples strike up a friendship over a lot of Chateau Expensive in the bar, and plan a boat trip the following day. A storm rises, Ed falls off the boat and is almost drowned, and Martin brings him back from the dead. Despite Martin and Chloë's demurrals, Ed and Sadie insist they want to give the younger couple a gift for saving Ed's life. They plan to meet a year hence, during which time Martin and Chloë can decide what it is they want most.

The second act follows their later meeting, this time in a luxurious high-rise apartment. Ed and Sadie recount their past year. Rejuvenated by their brush with death, they have discovered art: they have flown from capital to capital, hungrily consuming whatever they find. Ed has the jargon down pat, too. Then it's Martin and Chloë's turn. After a lot of prevarication, they announce that they would like Ed and Sadie to take their four-year-old daughter Eleanor, and give them back their pre-parent lives. Ed and Sadie are horrified and angry, Martin and Chloë alternately abashed and heartbroken. It finishes with a mutual vision of Eleanor, summoned by the two parents, playing in her unspoilt world in the background.

Woven into this bald plot are arguments about class, parenthood and, in particular, art. It is almost a stinging parody; its self-obsessed characters expose the tedium of a life of consumerism, the narcissism of contemporary mores, the emptiness of the commodification of art, the guilt that seems hard-wired into middle-class parenting, the poisonous nature of nostalgia. But The Gift demonstrates the paradox of parody, which half-worships what it seeks to excoriate. In this case, the blackness of Murray-Smith's satire is blunted by a pervasive sentimentality. The sentimentality originates in the script, but Maria Aitken's slick production heightens it to the point where it undermines any sense of irony.

And clearly these characters are meant, at one level at least, to be ironically rendered. The most sympathetic are the older couple, who remain oddly innocent: their wealth has been almost accidentally acquired, and they delight in it like children. Sadie shops, Ed - a bluff-spoken self-made man - runs the business. They are, however, a little bored. Chloë and Martin seem to them to embody a vitality and curiosity about life that they have lost. The younger couple, on the other hand, see people who have attained a success to which they aspire: Chloë forlornly confesses that, more than anything, she wants a dishwasher; Martin is impressed by Ed's plain-spokenness, his manly decisiveness in a competitive world. And both Chloë and Martin envy Ed and Sadie their childless irresponsibility: they have a playfulness which the younger couple, ground down by the everyday, lacks. Both couples are, they tell each other, honest people.

This ecstatic mutual discovery is a set up for the crisis, where scales fall from eyes and the uglier sides of these couples are exposed. And there's no denying that the artistic couple comes off worse in these revelations: they are not only pretentious, they are self-servingly blind. Ed, disgusted that Chloë and Martin could even think of getting rid of their daughter, summons an old-fashioned sense of right and wrong when he speaks of "seeing things through" (also, perhaps accidentally, one of the phrases that crops up in debate about wars in the Middle East). The two represent ordinary decency, which may be consciously compromised (they laughingly speak of their carbon footprints before dismissing the thought of actually doing anything about them), but is decent all the same.

It's no accident that Martin is a conceptual artist. Ever since Tom Wolfe's satire The Painted Word, conceptual art has been a rich field for those who want to claim that artists are wankers. Not that Murray-Smith is doing anything quite so crude. Martin and Chloë talk about little except art, and the play is rich with references to famous conceptual art installations: Ed waxes lyrical over Richard Wilson's 20:50, an installation in which an entire room is flooded with black oil, and Martin Creed's A door opening and closing and a light going on and off. He has discovered the wisdom of Martin's exhortation to him a year earlier: "Suspend doubt". He has suspended doubt, and life is marvellous.

This phrase, which recurs through the play like a mantra, is a sloganistic reworking of Coleridge's passage in Biographia Literaria on "the willing suspension of disbelief". Coleridge's catchy formulation has been used and abused ever since: it constitutes a central tenet in Romantic theories about art, and is certainly a useful reference in speaking of forms such as theatre. It's worth examining how its meaning is changed here, when "disbelief" is translated into "doubt". Coleridge originally was talking about narrative poems like the The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, which were published next to Wordsworth's poems of the everyday in their radical book Lyrical Ballads. "My endeavours," said Coleridge, "[are] directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith."

The aim of Coleridge's evocation of the "supernatural" was to coax from the imagination a "semblance of truth", with the willing collusion of the conscious mind. That willing collusion constitutes a fleeting "for the moment" act of faith, a leap into the unknown. So we choose to consciously accept the artifice, even the absurdity, of art, in order to experience the inner truths it might illuminate.

To "suspend doubt" suggests something entirely different: the suspension of doubt is an invitation to certainty. Rather than a willing and conscious collusion, it suggests a giving over of mental authority to the artist: questions must be quashed, scepticism put aside, in order to enter the sacred inner world the artist offers. In this formulation, the imagination of the artist is a kind of tyranny. In The Gift, this is represented by Martin's sculpture (exhibited at Tate Modern) of a holographic child inside a glass box. I guess, in the context of the play, it represents what has happened to Martin's "inner child" under the stress of parenthood; it also may represent Eleanor herself, trapped inside her parents' self-obsessed anxieties.

This bowdlerisation of a complex idea sits at the heart of my unease with The Gift: it is full of cod-Romantic ideas about art, which seem especially strange when applied to sternly anti-Romantic work such as conceptual art. The Romantic imagination is here transformed from a mutually enriching dynamic of inner imagination encountering the outer world, to a hermetically-sealed narcissism. Both Chloë and Martin are thorough-going narcissists: they lament "the world inside my head", the imaginative world here presented as the realm of art, which is "ruined" by its exposure the world outside.

The "unruined" child Eleanor, whom we glimpse at the end of the play, is ruining their artistic lives; she is nevertheless a symbol of primal innocence. It's unclear, in the end, why they wish to give her away: on the one hand, they can't bear to watch her childhood purity ruined by contact with reality; on the other, she has destroyed their own childish freedom. On another hand altogether, they insist that they love her.

The whole argument sets up a fake dilemma - art vs "ordinary" life - as a central condition of art. It elides some important things, such as art being impossible without life. The everyday is, after all, deeply embedded in the Romantic tradition. As Coleridge puts it, poetry should "awaken the mind's attention from the lethargy of custom, and direct it to the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us; an inexhaustible treasure, but for which in consequence of the film of familiarity and selfish solicitude we have eyes, yet see not, ears that hear not, and hearts that neither feel nor understand".

Is Murray-Smith's decadent echo of Romanticism meant to be satirical? For all its absurdity, there is no dialectic of a possible artistic truthfulness that rubs against it: instead, it is placed next to the common middle class decency of Ed and Sadie and the final vision of childish innocence. Her propositions are certainly too easy to take at face value: such ideas accord very neatly with common conceptions about art as self-indulgent wankery, a refusal to deal with the "real world", a state of pickled childishness.

Which brings me to the point which maybe bothers me most of all. The first act features a Waiter performed by Leighton Young, which is perhaps one of the most thankless roles seen recently in Melbourne. The Waiter has notably darker skin than the white, middle class cast, and he floats about the stage, serving drinks and occasionally moving scenery. He says not a word. I found myself waiting for him to break out of his waiterly role, to perhaps make some comment or otherwise show us that he was a actual character, rather than the useful prop he seems to be. Then I wondered if his mute, dark-skinned presence was an ironic visual comment on the unthinking first world consumption, insulated by privilege and money, of third world labour. It may have been intended in that way - again, you are left with a troubling ambiguity - but whether intended or not, what he ended up being in actual effect was the help: discreet, other, and all but invisible, hovering anonymously on the edge of the action.

The playwright wavers between making her characters unsympathetic parodies with repulsive excesses, or empathetic; in the end, she plumps for a simple empathy to dissolve the dilemma. It's possible to straddle this division (Ricky Gervaise's monstrous David Brent being a case in point), but here it panders to its audience. It's the sentimentality that does for it. "No one," says Milan Kundera, "is more insensitive than sentimental folk". This play, with all its problematic aspects, could almost be an illustration of that aphorism, but that we are clearly meant to identify with the characters' distress (especially Chloë's tormented motherhood confessions) and are forced to accept that its finale - a kitschly sentimental vision of childhood - is supposed to evoke a kind of redemption. If that is so, the play embodies nothing so conscious as satire. Rather, it seems closer to Kafka's comment on the novels of Dickens: "Heartlessness masked by a style overflowing with feeling".

Certainly, nothing in Aitken's production sharpens the satire beyond some comfortably comic self-deprecations. Its cast performs the characters with sincerity, which perhaps is not the best way to serve the script; the only character who seemed at all real to me was Richard Piper's (admittedly over-acted) Ed. Richard Roberts' set delivers aspirational theatre - glamorous tropical bars, city skylines seen from picture windows. Even the poverty-stricken artists wear designer clothes. It works elegantly for most of it, aside from a clumsy evocation of a storm at sea using the bar with a revolve and projected backdrops, but if this play is supposed to stick pins into middle class anxiety and narcissism, it also makes it look pretty damn desirable. And, like Hollywood religion, it assures us that we are all really nice, well meaning people underneath.

It seems to me that Murray-Smith wants to have her cake and eat it too. If she really let loose the black impulses that lurk beneath some of her lines, she risks alienating her major audience. So we are comforted instead, and leave unawakened.

Picture: Richard Piper and Heather Bolton in The Gift. Photo: Jeff Busby

The Gift by Joanna Murray-Smith, directed by Maria Aitken. Set and costumes by Richard Roberts, lighting by Hartley TA Kemp, composer Ian McDonald, choreography by John Bolton. With Richard Piper, Heather Bolton, Matt Dyktynski, Elizabeth Debicki and Leighton Young. Eirini Kosmidis, Chloe Guymer or Nyah Hart as Eleanor. Sumner Theatre, Melbourne Theatre Company, until July 9.


Anonymous said...

"It seems to me that Murray-Smith wants to have her cake and eat it too."

So would you go so far as to say that Murray-Smith's play was, wait for it, half-baked?

Sorry. (Made myself laugh, anyway.)

Enjoyable read, Alison, especially that quote of Kafka's - hadn't heard that one before.

Anonymous said...

Think you've been too generous to an extremely selfish play

Alison Croggon said...

You think so? I was trying for dispassion, actually. I was curious to untangle my thoughts about it.

Alison Croggon said...

PS Hi EP. And thanks. You're almost excused for that awful pun, but not quite.

Cameron Woodhead said...

I couldn't think of a way of discussing some of the play's complexities without resorting to spoilerama - unfair to a new play in a newspaper review.

Re this:

"It's unclear, in the end, why they wish to give her away: on the one hand, they can't bear to watch her childhood purity ruined by contact with reality; on the other, she has destroyed their own childish freedom. On another hand altogether, they insist that they love her."

Had you considered that Martin and Chloe's 'gift' was intended by them to be art? It occurred to me. The performances and direction don't serve that reading very well, nor some of the Act 2 prevarication, but the suggestion hovers there nonetheless.

chickenlord said...

This play is what a theatre company produces when they have not worked the playwright harder. It is lazy playwriting. With JMS's reputation and an audience that come with that, the profit is there to be made. To not push her therefore to create something extraordinary with some of those themes, to take them further is laziness also on the part of the theatre company.

The direction of this play is a failing again in the way such writing, such a play, is presented. By using such a standardised, bog standard approach, not one audience member is challenged. Thus, an audience accustomed to the expectation of what they will get, do get just that. Yet to not take risks with the production (despite it already a winner given the playwrights name attached), shows a lack of courage on the part of both the director and the company.

The failings within such truthful design and settings also do render the production on a purely pragmatic level a fail. To have totally realistic naturalistic costuming and props for the first few scenes, but then to have no costume changes in the boat scene (especially when it is said she wears an orange bikini), illuminate the failure spectacularly). The moon dropping in the sky needs to happen quicker as moons do at the horizon. These two examples illustrate the problem with such approaches.

The enormous design moment at the end possesses such a level of twee, not evident at all up until that point, we are left supposedly impressed when to cringe is the only fair result. The entire second half could have included such magical things, but no, largely an hour of words.

On an acting level all of the participants work at something, but again the director needs to lift up her socks and give the two younger actors in particular some help. The two of them, high in the chest, breathy, their lines designed to be completed and started again by each other, fail to do so in the stilted, as if monologue fashion, that the playwrights poetry is not realised.

These two need to be held as they smash through their lines, drop them down into their bellies, into their bowels, then to spew forth with speed. The way they are however drifting from them, pauses evident beyond what is either nice, good, or impressive, shows the failings of the play and the manner of its producing and presentation in all its failings.

For a theatre company to seemingly try to challenge their audience - as they chose to do with Behanding in Spokane, yet to not take risks even of a very slight nature - is in essence a failure of good sense. Joanna Murray Smith is a name that will sell tickets, so the ability to make that something is there. Rather than with the sort of Behanding in Spokane offensively stupid affair that was always going to fail.

So. The playwright not being demanded of to produce something more than words - where things actually happen. The director tasked with taking an ordinary and quite poor play somewhere an audience can be challenged by but not too much. Either of these choices needed to be made, yet neither were.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Cameron - The advantage of blogs! It would have been total bad form to discuss the plot turn in the newspaper, since so much in the play relies on it. But online we can put spoiler warnings and leave the reader to decide.

I'm not sure if the idea of the child as art is there (if it is, it's kind of obnoxious). But I think you're right - it does hover about the play (reinforced by that final image of the child playing in her box). But if it does, to what end...?

Chickenlord, in plays, language is action - as Pinter says, words are what people do to each other. If it does that, it doesn't need bells and whistles. I agree, in this play the language was mostly about explaining and describing.

Anonymous said...

Alison, are you going to Sydney to see The Seagull?

Alison Croggon said...

I wish. Can't justify it to my bank balance, alas. I am already bitterly regretting missing it.

Richard Pettifer said...

maybe it'll come down here

Thanks for the review Alison. Recommend also Neandellus' review of this play... interesting...

Henry Grebler said...

Hi Allison - Great review; really interesting.

What concerns me is that your review is of the text alone. For me, the
text has always been paramount.

However, a play is also performance art. Usually, when the performance
is adequate or better, one can choose not to comment. I don't think
that applies to The Gift. The first act is so dull, the characters so
self-absorbed and fatuous, one regrets the time spent in their

I'm too polite to leave the theatre during the performance. I
considered leaving at interval, finally deciding to persevere.

If an audience member never gets to see the second half, the
interesting questions of the second half will be missed.

Even now, I'm wondering if I would have lost anything if I'd skipped
the play altogether and simply read your review.

Henry Grebler said...

Cameron Woodhead said...

I couldn't think of a way of discussing some of the play's complexities without resorting to spoilerama - unfair to a new play in a newspaper review.

I've generally felt disappointed by newspaper reviews because they don't separate the "should I see it?" from the analysis. As a result, we usually get a retelling of the plot. Consequently, I save reviews and read them after the show. Or visit Alison (sorry, I don't know where the second "l" came from before).

What I'd like to see is something like this:

Should I see The Gift? Drama, irony. After an insipid first act, some interesting questions are raised in the second. If you are not interested in some pretty left-field hypotheticals, don't bother.

After you've seen it ...

followed by an analysis.

The reviewer can then present the sort of intelligent comments that theatre-goers make to each other at the after-show coffee. The reviewer doesn't need to retell the plot because the reader has seen the play.

Having said that, I guess it's hard to change tradition. Just ask Tevye.

Henry Grebler said...

chickenlord said...

Yet to not take risks with the production ...

MTC + risk = oxymoron

If you want risk, go to the Malthouse. Or any of the smaller theatre companies around town.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Henry - the spoiler thing is a fixed convention in newspaper reviews (unless you're Jim Schembri, of course). And kind of fair enough.

And point taken - absolutely, theatre is more than the text. A review can seldom be more than a partial response, and whoever is writing it will tend to focus on whatever aspect interests them most. In this case, I particularly wanted to look at the play. But it's one reason I like the occasions when I write about dance, where there seldom any text to discuss.

Deirdre McNally said...

I have just seen the production last night and was so disappointed with the play that I,unusually for me, wanted to join the discussion. My initial reaction was : banal, tired, boring and a plot which for me was so well signposted that there was no surprise whatever in the second act. Upon overnight reflection, I realised that what I missed were any new perspectives on what I assume was the main thrust of the play, ie tension between domesticity and creativity. I kept waiting for new insights on this old, old issue, or some new perspectives which would spark something - but there was nothing new in this play. The acting was tolerable apart from Richard Piper's need to explode every now and again, but perhaps he just needed to inject some life into the production.

Anonymous said...

I saw 'The Gift' tonight and think your review is a good one and agree with much of what you have said.

I left feeling as if JMS had raised some interesting points to explore but then hadn't dealt with them enough. e.g. the dilemma of artists (who are almost by definition selfish if they want to devote themselves to their art, if it is their true vocation) and child rearing, especially among modern couples where the wife is not necessarily happy to be mere muse/child raiser/wind beneath her husband's wings.

What of the primal feelings of love that most parents have for their children? Could a couple (especially a 'sensitive' couple of artists) really give their five year old girl away and be okay with that? Really??? I wasn't convinced.

However, the play did make me think and here I am reading your blog and commenting and isn't that what good art should do?

I saw 'In the Next room' at MTC and loved it, I'm sorry you didn't stay - I came back for a second viewing the following week which is the first time in over 20 years of regular playgoing I've done that. I thought it was brilliant -

I knew that 'Next to Normal' had won the Pulitzer prize over 'In the next room' so went to that with very high hopes.

And was very badly disappointed. Hated the music, thought the story was disrespectful, ignorant, negative and shallow. I believe it could only have won the prize for political reasons - as in 'here is a musical about mental illness, mental illness is an increasing social problem, lets get people talking about it' - bingo.

I have four sisters who suffer from major mental health problems so I know the realities of mental health problems and that musical was an insult. A friend of mine who has bipolar went and cried all the way through and was "rocked to the core"/devastated by the final act - it was rotten.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks for your contributions, Deidre and Anon. Yes, The Gift has caused a lot of comment, so I guess that's something, although I think it's because it's so confused. I guess that personally I found the whole art vs children thing a crock. It's partly personal, of course; I've been writing full-time for two decades and have three children, so have my own very different experiences.

But to get away from the personal: the situation JMS gives us here is not without precedent, if presented clumsily. Clara Westoff was married to the poet Rilke and gave her daughter to her mother so she could pursue sculpture. She ended up leaving Rillke after 18 years to live with her daughter, so maybe that didn't go so well. Well-meaning friends and patrons ensured Coleridge was not told of the death of his son for months, so his genius would not be interrupted as it studied in Germany (the ensuing guilt I think accounts for his unhappy marriage and maybe even his opium addiction). Certainly his friends weren't above sneering at his domesticity. And maybe back then, before washing machines and vacuum cleaners, the sheer labour of caring for a child might have been an argument: surely not so now, in privileged western society. All those attitudes, like Cyril Connelly's comment that "a pram in the hallway is the enemy of good art", persisted up to to the 20C - and beyond, as this play shows. And they are part of a larger denigration of feminine work and the division between the public and the domestic that is simply misogynistic. It has been actively enforced in a male-dominated world, punishing women who defied it (eg, the poet Anna Wickham was locked up in an asylum by her husband when she refused his orders and published a book) and then, of course, presented as a natural - rather than enforced - order. Reinforcing those divisions and privilege is no more than this play does, whatever the meaning of the vision of the child at the end (and I really had no idea what it really meant - to me it seemed to function as a moment of false resolution, an unearned reach for feeling to dissolve the dilemma).

Yes, I should have stayed to the end of Ruhl's play. I had a moment of critical weakness. And I wholly agree with you on N2N's treatment of mental illness, which was total bullshit.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your reply Alison re my comment last night regarding the three recent MTC plays.

I was just thinking this morning that here in Melbourne/Victoria we have the example of Joy Hester who gave her 4 yr old son Sweeney to John and Sunday Reed and moved to Sydney with another artist, Gray Smith (aparently she thought she was going to die from lymphoma within 2 yrs but she lived on for decades).

So its not unprecedented - it just wasn't believable in this play. Especially when a child is five, most of the constant hard work is done and they can be sent to school! Maybe if the child was younger and the mother had post natal depression...also I wasn't really convinced the Richard Piper character was sold on the whole idea.

That said, it is interesting to think about the whole 'whoops I made a mistake, I didn't know it was going to be like this but I can't give my child away now' idea, as we do tend to take it for granted now that our children are precious and we will love them above all. But not all do - one example would be some drug users. And children were not always as highly regarded and the 'precious gifts' in the way they now are.

I am a writer and have a child, but I fit my writing in around her. I'm sure Murray Smith does much the same as she also has children (and her husband is an arts writer too - is Joanne the genius character in her marriage, with all her success? Would be interesting to know how they juggle child care responsibilities and hear some of the arguments!)

In a world where our population is increasing and our planet is suffering perhaps we will need to reconsider the idea that having a child is a peak experience/must do - perhaps in the future those who have second thoughts will farm their children out to others who are unable to have their own - perhaps there could be a share arrangement!

I liked the child in the glass box idea - as if the child was a gift in a box. Also the ethereal nature of childhood/innocence/beauty and how it is precious/fragile.

Anonymous said...

Terrific review. The play's opening here in LA this month, but I think I'll pass. Thanks for the heads up and thoughtful criticism.