Reviews: On the Misconception of Oedipus, His Girl Friday ~ theatre notes

Friday, August 17, 2012

Reviews: On the Misconception of Oedipus, His Girl Friday

There's a certain discomfort and sharpness, a sense of reaching beyond the limitations of merely making "good" theatre, that filled me with relief when I was watching On the Misconception of Oedipus. I realised that I've been missing this quality recently: a feeling that a work is jostling uneasily at the edges of form as its explores its ideas.  Devised by director Matthew Lutton, designer Zoe Atkinson and writer Tom Wright, On the Misconception of Oedipus is a short play that explores one of the foundational theories of psychoanalysis, Freud's Oedipus Complex. It jams together the ancient myth of Oedipus - the child prophesied to kill his father and marry his mother, and abandoned to die on a hillside - with a contemporary narrative moved by the same dark motivations - jealousy, fear of death, misogyny, infanticide, incest.

Richard Pyros and Natasha Herbert in On the Misconception of Oedipus. Photo: Garth Oriander

Atkinson's set is an illuminated box (expressively lit by Paul Jackson) that represents a domestic room, newly plastered but yet to be painted. Back stage is a closed door, through which the actors enter; on the other side of the stage is a huge tape reel that turns itself on and off at the beginning and end of the show, mutely recording memory. It's a scrupulously formal structure: three chairs are placed carefully before three microphones, the three characters tell their stories, and there are three acts, each stylistically distinct.

In Lutton's production, an exposed naturalism jars against moments that are almost operatic, heightened by Kelly Ryall's sound design, which later on amplifies the stage itself. The tension between the production's tight discipline - Tom Wright's almost neurotically shaped prose and the sharp stage dynamics - and the anarchic forces unleashed in performance makes for riveting viewing. Sometimes this tension explodes in laughter. Sometimes it remains, unresolved and savage, as ugly shadow.

Lutton's outstanding cast - Natasha Herbert as Jocasta, Daniel Schlusser as Laius and Richard Pyros as Oedipus - don't miss a beat. While it looks at various ideas of fate or predestination - is the fault in the gods or in ourselves? - Wright's text is essentially an excavation of the roots of misogyny, the fear of and desire for death that's projected onto the fecundity of women. The first two acts - a monologue from Oedipus, and a dialogue between the troubled couple Laius and Jocasta that includes the disastrous return of the banished son - import the Oedipus myth literally into contemporary terms, creating all sorts of discomforting dislocations. The final act, a comic conversation between the incestuous couple, subsumes these disturbing stories into the familiar and ordinary. And leaves it there, without resolution. I liked this very much. Only on until August 26.

Pamela Rabe and Philip Quast in His Girl Friday. Photo: Jeff Busby

His Girl Friday, which I saw the following night, is an exercise in contrast. This is a full-on commercial comedy featuring a huge and intricate set and a very starry cast, with Philip Quast and Pamela Rabe in the central roles. It's grey and bleak outside, we're all sick of winter, and this lively comedy feels like putting on a very comfortable coat. Also, the Columbia Pictures film His Girl Friday (originally the Ben Hecht/Charles MacArthur play The Front Page) ranks with Evelyn Waugh's Scoop as one of the great satires on journalism. My alma mater is the now long vanished afternoon newspaper The Melbourne Herald, which back when I was a copygirl still featured wood panelling, huge Remington typewriters and conscienceless beat-up merchants of the old school, and I can't but feel a fond, if sour, nostalgia for it. Though I don't know why anybody called this era of journalism, of which I witnessed the rag ends, a "golden age": it was anything but golden.

John Guare's adaptation sets the 1928 play one the eve of World War 2. He makes some pertinent points about incipient American fascism (Hitler has some fans in the news room) and political corruption that strike sharply amid the screwball comedy. The central story is about a working class Jewish anarchist (David Woods), who is due to be hanged. He is a victim of local political machinations, his execution an election winner for the corrupt Chicago Mayor (Jim Daly). For the reporters he is (despite Hitler's invasion of Poland on the same day) the story of the century. Meanwhile, the struggling divorce of ace reporter Hildy Johnson (Pamela Rabe) and editor Walter Burns (Philip Quast) provides the central comedy.

Like the film, this play has to go like the clappers. On opening night it ran 20 minutes long, which I expect will tighten up as the season continues. It's also a function of the structure, which gives us the kind of big, baggy play we don't often see written now. It's full of slapstick jokes and stage business and some very funny dialogue, but the stage really lights up with the dialogues between Quast and Rabe. Accomplished comedians like Peter Houghton, David Woods and Deidre Rubenstein keep the ball rolling; director Aidan Fennessy has the audience with him from the projected opening credits, and despite the odd longueur and some wavering accents it's an enjoyable night. Especially at this end of winter.

Why the short reviews? This is why.

On the Misconception of Oedipus, devised by Zoe Atkinson, Matthew Lutton and Tom Wright, text by Tom Wright, directed by Matthew Lutton. Design by Zoe Atkinson, lighting by Paul Jackson, composition and sound design by Kelly Ryall. With Natasha Herbert, Richard Pyros and Daniel Schlusser. Perth Theare Company and Malthouse Theatre, Beckett Theatre, until August 26.

His Girl Friday, adapted by John Guare from The Front Page by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, and the Columbia Pictures film. Directed by Aidan Fennessy, design by Tracy Grant Lord, lighting by Matt Scott, sound design by Russell Goldsmith. With Marco Chiappi, Kate Cole, Tyler Coppin, Jim Daly, Giordano Gangl, Tom Hobbs, Peter Houghton, John Leary, Adam Murphy, Grant Piro, Philip Quast, Pamela Rabe, Deidre Rubenstein, Christopher Stollery, David Woods and Tim Wotherspoon. Melbourne Theatre Company, Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne, until September 15.


Anonymous said...

Saw 'His Girl Fiday' last night. I have no idea why it was chosen - the script is flabby, too long. The comedy is old fashioned screwball, the type that may appeal to the very young or the very old - it is the kind that reminds me of being sober amongst drunks who think they are funny but aren't. I didn't care about the convoluted plot nor the unreal characters with their fake accents. In short - I couldn't wait for it to be over! One of the few times in over 20 years of being an MTC subscriber I felt like not clapping. If I am going to spend $65 or so to come out in peak hour traffic and sit in a theatre for 3 hours I expect a much higher standard of play than this. Disappointing in what I regard as a very average MTC year.

Anonymous said...

I saw "His Girl Friday" on closing night, and I found it to be an entertaining and enjoyable play overall. As Alison mentioned, the two leads in Philip Quast and Pamela Rabe are the ones who make it all come alive. The large supporting cast ably holds the rest in place with busy but energetic pacing and dialogue. Good on MTC for trying something bouyant and refreshing for a change.