Sunday, February 21, 2016

The Blind Giant is Dancing

Dan Spielman as Allen Fitzgerald
Photo: Brett Boardman

The Blind Giant is Dancing by Stephen Sewell.  Belvoir directed by Eamon Flack, Belvoir St Theatre Upstairs, February 13 – March 20, 2016.

Set and Costume Designer – Dale Ferguson; Lighting Designer – Verity Hampson; Composer and Sound Designer – Steve Toulmin; Fight Choreographer – Scott Witt.

Michael Denkha – Mr Carew; Ivan Donato – Ramon Gris; Andrew Henry – Bruce Fitzgerald; Emma Jackson – Janice / Jane / Robin; Russell Kiefel – Doug Fitzgerald / Sir Leslie Harris; Genevieve Lemon – Eileen Fitzgerald; Geoff Morrell – Michael Wells; Zahra Newman – Rose Draper; Dan Spielman – Allen Fitzgerald; Yael Stone – Louise Kraus; Ben Wood – Bob Lang

Reviewed by Frank McKone
February 20

I can’t complain any more about mainstream theatres failing to revive significant Australian plays.  This year we have already seen STC’s The Golden Age by Louis Nowra, and now The Blind Giant is Dancing, Stephen Sewell’s 1983 cynical play about political corruption from an ideological Marxist point of view.

When I saw the original version in Sydney, soon after its first production by the State Theatre of South Australia in Adelaide, I found it tedious in the extreme, so un-invigorating that I wanted to leave at the second interval of a three-hour polemic.

This time around I have a different response.  But first, a little background will help our understanding.

The “Blind Giant” is Capitalism, “Dancing” to a new tune in 1983, as the incoming Australian Labor Party government began the process of “freeing the market” (that is, the money market) from the old government controls, such as determining the exchange rate of the Australian dollar and setting import limits to “protect” Australian manufacturing and primary industries.

Behind Sewell’s Giant is the theory of the late 18th Century / early 19th Century German philosopher, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, commonly known as the Hegelian Dialectic (look up for Hegel for Beginners).

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels took up the idea of historical change via “thesis”, “antithesis” and “synthesis” to mean that each politico-economic system (currently Capitalism) inevitably contains within it “the seeds of its own destruction”.  In the play, the Chilean democrat, Ramon Gris, had fought against the dictator Pinochet, and – in 1983 – thinks “The [Australian] people are feeling their power for the first time” and expects street protests and a revolution.  The audience in 2016 laughed.

Allen Fitzgerald, lapsed Catholic, now atheist Marxist, replies: “The people are corrupt...they’ve lived too long on the crumbs of crime and genocide; they’ve learnt too well to obey their masters and deliver up their children!  They have no shame, no pride, no vision.  They’re dead!” 

Ramon and others in the play see him as going mad, but the “seed” of Capitalism’s destruction is the “corruption” of the people as they come to accept the corrupt nature of politics as inevitable.  I’m not sure how the audience in 2016 took this, considering the concern often expressed nowadays that people no longer trust any politicians.  They weren’t laughing, though, when Fitzgerald spoke.  Nor had they earlier in the play, when Fitzgerald said “Australia will never be the same again.”

Though I thought in the 1980s that The Blind Giant was a political diatribe, cynical because Fitzgerald, just as the pigs in Animal Farm become the same as the humans, turns himself into the same kind of politician as the corrupt Michael Wells he defeats; that its Marxism was pretentious; and that Sewell’s attempts to present a human face through Allen Fitzgerald’s wife and family only produced cardboard cutouts – now Australia is not the same as it was and I must ask, has the play survived?

Well, I think it has for two reasons.

In the 2016 Edition, the script has fortunately not been “updated”.  1983 is still the setting (Allen’s younger brother Bruce Fitzgerald is just about to begin to learn how to use a computer, and the phones are all on fixed landlines with no “smarts”), so now the play is all the better for our being able to look back in history to the post-Vietnam war, Thatcherite and Reagonomics period when Marxism seemed a justifiable fashion – especially among theatrical intellectuals.  I recall British tertiary drama teachers at conferences justifying their right to expound, if not impose, their political views in training high school teachers as necessary for the revolution.

And I think the modern approach to directing and design, used so effectively by Eamon Flack, Dale Ferguson, Verity Hampson and Steve Toulmin, has made the action fast moving in three dimensions around a centrally placed see-through electronic screen, cleverly lit from behind and in front, or itself showing text in brilliant silver, punctutated with explosive sound and blackouts, and incorporating a highly dramatic winched rig to display the industrial accidents faced by the steel-workers. 

Although the play is still about ideas rather than building true in-depth emotion, (despite the terrific work particularly by Yael Stone as Louise Kraus, Allen Fitzgerald’s determinedly independent wife and by Russell Kiefel as Allen's father, Doug), the directing in this design makes the story and the ideas clear to me now – and interesting to follow even for 2 hours 45 minutes (including 2 intervals), rather than becoming a boring 2-dimensional show as I remember the production of 30 years ago.

It’s a bit ironic to realise that the original production was designed by the recent Platform Paper author, Stephen Curtis (The Designer: Decorator or Dramaturg? reviewed on this blog February 10, 2016 ).  Maybe it’s just me that’s changed – for the better, I hope.

All photos by Brett Boardman
The set in action

Dan Spielman as Allen Fitzgerald (behind)
Michael Denkha as Mr Carew, Geoff Morrell as Michael Wells

Dan Spielman as Allen Fitzgerald, Yael Stone as Louise Kraus

Dan Spielman as Allen Fitzgerald, Geoff Morrell as Michael Wells

Genevieve Lemon as Eileen Fitzgerald, Yael Stone as Louise Kraus

Andrew Henry as Bruce Fitzgerald

Genevieve Lemon as Eileen and Russell Kiefel as Doug Fitzgerald

Dan Spielman and Yael Stone
as Allen and Louise

Dan Spielman and Zahra Newman
as Allen Fitzgerald and Rose Draper

Ivan Donato as Ramon Gris
Dan Spielman as Allen Fitzgerald

Yael Stone and Dan Spielman
as Louise and Allen

Russell Kiefel and Dan Spielman
as Doug Fitzgerald and his son Allen