Saturday, April 12, 2014

Warts & All

Warts & All written and directed by Bruce Hoogendoorn at the Courtyard Studio, Canberra Theatre Centre, April 2 – 12, Wed-Sat, 2014-04-12

Reviewed by Frank McKone
April 11

The title, I guess, imposes on me a duty to reveal all about this new play by perhaps the most indie of independent operators in the Canberra theatre scene.  Hoogendoorn calls it a comedy, but though there were some laughs from the small and sympathetic audience, there were not enough for me to think ‘comedy’.

Why not?  After all, the central device is the ghost of an athletics coach, Ken, played with exactly the right Australian manner by Rob de Fries, who is mistaken for the ghost of his father, Ted.  Though ghosts can’t be real – can they? – this one’s piercing whistle and sudden appearance from Simon’s wardrobe was certainly quite frightening.  I had a bit of a nervous laugh until my willingness to suspend my disbelief got the better of me, and he turned into a nice bloke.

Then there was Oliver Baudert playing the elderly Alice.  He did it very well, but I have to say that I could not find a reason for this casting, except perhaps that if Alice had been played by a woman, the role of bitter division between her and her contemporary Margaret would not have been funny at all.  Helen Vaughan-Roberts played Margaret straight as a realistic character who engendered much empathy.

Playing realistically, as the two just-finished Year 12 grandchildren were played by Will Huang (Margaret’s Simon) and Adellene Fitzsimmons (Alice’s Kirsty), also meant occasions when comedy was not appropriate.  On the other hand the role of Dotty, counsellor and family historian, gave the best chance for the laughs you get from the people who put their foot in it – and Elaine Noon did this well.

So what’s my problem?  Bit by bit the mystery of Ted, on one side of the family, who had patriotically volunteered in World War 2 and died in Syria, and Alan, on the other side, who had stayed in the small black soil town somewhere not far from Toowoomba to keep the family shop running, began to be revealed.

When it came to connecting the dots about Alan feeling so guilty after Ted’s death that he smoked himself to a cancerous death at 50, and Alan and Margaret’s daughter drowning – in fact committing suicide – shortly after Ted’s death, and then the discovery that she had borne Ted’s son – that is, Ken – who had been adopted out and knew nothing of his real parents (and had recently died in a car smash), I realised that this story was not the proper material for a ghostly romantic comedy.  In fact I was glad that the lack of one-liner jokes meant there was not much laughter.

To have succeeded in making a comedy out of this story would have been bizarre, when the issues of patriotism and cowardice, out-of-wedlock birth and forced adoption, and decades-long internecine family bitterness are hardly laughing matters.

Oddly enough, in his ‘Playwright’s Notes’, writing about conflict in families, Hoogendoorn says: “no wonder playwrights have mined it in such beloved plays as The Glass Menagerie, Death of a Salesman, and more recently August: Osage County and Other Desert Cities.  And funnily enough, no one gets on very well in them.  If they did, they wouldn’t be such fascinating plays.”

Just so!  There may be humour in these works, but they are not comedies.  There are ironies (like in the title Other Desert Cities reviewed in the Guardian as “a tense family portrait ...Jon Robin Baitz's Christmas-set drama uses fractured nuclear families to examine the broken American psyche”) which Hoogendoorn hardly glimpses in this script.

Maybe it’s time for his next play (he’s up to 15 according to his website to put genre and content appropriately together: on the topic of families, a truly absurdist take would be good (see my recent review of Perplex), or may be a realistic tragedy of misunderstanding and bitter division on the black soil plains as the younger generation feel the need, encouraged by a conservative government, to go to the Dawn Ceremony at Gallipoli in 2015.

Art is about finding the right form for what the artist needs to express.

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