|Image of Programme by Pants. Cover Photography by Marcel Aucer|
I don't often review plays. By the time an international production makes it to Australia, most people have already seen it, forgotten it and subsequently died. Luckily for me, several new Australian plays of exceptional quality have turned up recently in Melbourne. I've previously seen Deborah Cheetham's sublime and moving opera Pecan Summer and Tim Winton's witty and waggish Rising Water. The Arts Centre, Melbourne has been playing a blinder when it comes to supporting Australian work lately.
Now, I find I have a been the recipient of an unusual experience with great thanks to my friend and fellow blogger Ann O'Dyne. I have witnessed a preview of the 'world' premiere of Music, a new play by stalwart of Australian theatre, Barry Oakley. That's about as first-cab-off-the-rank as it gets for me.
Plays about grumpy old academics are not rare. Plays about grumpy old dying academics are not even that rare. In fact, there is another play about a grumpy old dying academic currently on in a theatre close by (Wild Surmise - a stage adaptation of Dorothy Porter's verse poem). It takes chutzpah to turn the sod of a theatrical cliché as crusty as this and find something new to say. The upside is that pulling it off makes for a thrilling entertainment.
There is one advantage to familiar plots - a wealth of available shorthand. The main business is despatched quickly. Jack, a retired lecturer in English Literature has a brain tumour. His best friend Max, a doctor, must break the news. Max is the lover of Jack's wife Margie, a pianist and teacher at the 'Conservatorium'. They decide to tell Jack he has longer to live (3 months) than he really does (3 weeks). This all happens in the first few minutes, giving us ninety minutes to explore the way Jack chooses to confront his demise. The well-meaning white lie backfires unleashing a spectacular display of ill-humour and misbehaviour. Refusing all treatment, Jack decides instead to self-medicate with music, memories, morphine and malt whisky.
A character with terminal illness in a play is obliged to die by the end, therefore the playwright must find another way of managing suspense. This is done effectively with a series of secrets that may or may not be revealed over the course of ninety very tense minutes. The secrets and pressures and personal frailties too are clichés. Oakley plays us like a toy piano. Jack rails tepidly against the 'dumbing down' - yes he actually does say 'dumbing down' of English Lit. and its usurper, the odious 'cultural studies'. His brief rant is entirely absent of plausible conviction. He knows we've heard this all before.
Jack's 'early retirement' due to impropriety with a student; Margie's imminent ousting from the Conservatorium because she's too old; their under-fulfilled professional lives; their joint failure to grieve adequately for a dead child and each falling into inappropriate arms because of it - clichés all but perfectly placed. We absorb these people's backstories via a few scant sketches.
And so to the main event - Jack's decline. And what a magnificent unravelling it is. Jack is played by Richard Piper who bears a striking resemblance to the late Peter Finch. Appearing throughout in a tatty plaid dressing gown, in meltdown he appears to be channelling Howard Beale. We see a man who is suddenly aware that he hasn't ever bothered to step outside the frame of sandstone conventionality. He's lived a life of minimal effort and now it's too late to pen that major scholarly work and be the good man he always expected himself to become.
The fourth person in the drama is Jack's estranged brother, Peter. A catholic priest, he is coincidentally visiting Melbourne from Sydney to attend a conference on eschatology - the study of 'last things'. Again, Oakley makes smart work of another cliché. Lost faith is the basis of the brothers' falling out. The filial tension requires little explanation giving us plenty of opportunity to soak up the sheer muscularity of it. And this is a very physical play, despite being about people in late middle age.
Oakley chooses to punctuate each dramatic milestone with a piece of music, hence the title, and this is the spine of the play. Jack relives moments of his life through a series of musical memories. The pieces are either played by Margie on the upstage grand piano which is the centrepiece of the semi-circular performance area, or on a CD player placed downstage. Each piece of music advances the plot as it would in an opera or stage musical. More expertly wielded shorthand. As artists once used memento mori to symbolically illustrate the 'dance of death' in etchings and woodcuts, Oakley exploits the human capacity to animate the past with music. These accompany Jack's own dance of death. A sparse, cylcoramic set aids the physical flow and a few scattered accoutrements establish the social stratum - 1930s grand piano, early model CD player, piles of books and papers.
The way I've described it here, it sounds like a very complex drama, but it doesn't play that way. The shorthand is the key. We all know that baby boomers have always got to be protesting about something and never do attain that peskily out-of-reach state of personal nirvana, or manage to acquire every possible status object and are pathologically competitive, (Max and Margie have a running argument about whose forebears had the rougher time - her Viennese Jewish grandfather or his mother, widowed by the firebombing of Dresden). Boomers also don't believe they should die until they've reached at least 98 or feel the slightest obligation to grow up. And thanks for keeping all that fetishism for self-obsession alive by the way, Oprah.
Here's a play that deals with someone coming to terms with the realisation that this is no way to live. Jack's decision to spurn any treatment is fundamentally a declaration of decency, an eleventh-hour maturing. He accepts finality, however reluctantly. Now that is radical.
I've gone on too long already I know but there's one more thing I want to say. I know I never stop blathering on about how tedious I find Australia's prolonged and utterly self-indulgent identity crisis and how it just poisons creativity but a play like this makes me realise how right I am. Australian writers are obliged to tell 'our stories'. This breaks down into even more constricting subsets. Indigenous writers and those from minority ethnic backgrounds are expected to write only about their own cultures. Hell, every time poor Peter Carey sets foot in this country someone has a go at him for writing a book set in America, where he's lived for over twenty years. No wonder he can't wait back to get back there.
Music, (and yes I know I've just written a longish review of a play called 'Music' without mentioning any of the featured tunes - plenty of others will do that), is not an 'Australian story'. We assume it's set in Melbourne and Peter visits from Sydney but it could be located anywhere. And this is one reason for writing this review. It could be set in New York with Peter visiting from Boston. The two cities could be London and Liverpool and it would all work with just a few reference changes. This play has ambition. It has a passport. It wants to play on bigger stages. And I like that, very much. Clever you, Mr Oakley, clever you.
Music is on at the Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre, Melbourne until 22 December.