Thursday, March 17, 2016

Machu Picchu by Sue Smith

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu by Sue Smith.  Sydney Theatre Company and State Theatre Company of South Australia, at Wharf 1, Sydney, March 9 – April 9, 2016.

Directed by Geordie Brookman; Set and Costume Designer – Jonathon Oxlade; Lighting Designer – Nigel Levings; Composer – Alan John; Sound Designer – Andrew Howard.

Elena Carapetis (kim/Nurse Jen/Backup Singer/Guilt)
Darren Gilshenan (Paul)
Luke Joslin (Marty/Elvis)
Annabel Matheson (Lucy/Pain/Backup Singer)
Lisa McCune (Gabby)
Renato Musolino (Lou)

Reviewed by Frank McKone
March 16

This is a new Australian play, about the fact that our lives are actually a matter of accident, despite our assumption that we will decide who comes into our lives (to misquote John Howard).

And it happened to me.  Sydney friends just chanced to be in the audience unbeknown to me, so I asked them what they thought over a post-show coffee (except that they had hot chocolate which I had not thought to order at that time of day – for me it’s a supper-time indulgence).

What they said surprised me a bit, too, until I considered their reasoning: “intriguing” “but not memorable”, they said.

First, though, what’s accidental about Machu Picchu (apart from the spelling, which has to be watched very closely)? 

For engineering students, acting together in their annual revue is entirely predictable, and so is the result of the after-revue party.  There are some of the expected lumpy moments in the course of true love, until Paul buys Gabby a surprise one-third of a horse, and a daughter Lucy is born.

It’s not surprising, either, that both are fascinated by the engineering feat of the Incas who built the city of Machu Picchu on a very high, very narrow ridge, so well designed that it has stood virtually unaffected by mountain uplifting, constant earthquakes and massive rainfall for more than 500 years, while their Spanish Conquerors’ cathedrals regularly collapse and are washed away in mudslides.

The accident which turns Paul into a paraplegic, sends him half-mad, and leaves Gabby angry and unwilling to be nothing more than his carer for the foreseeable future, is the result of Gabby driving them into a tree when a kangaroo leaps unpredictably across their road in the dark, as only kangaroos can do.

Lucy is by now a young doctor (at work, not in the car), Paul has spent lengthy periods away from home working on water supply and sewerage for an NGO in Cambodia, while Gabby has had to struggle with the business of being a woman and a mother, often alone, establishing her own career.  They know everything about Machu Picchu, but they’ve never been there.  They are sort-of arguing when they hit the tree.

It’s my duty, of course, not to write the rest of the story.  It certainly is intriguing, but it is not as memorable as one might hope.

The reasons for this are nothing to do with the quality of the directing and acting – you know what to expect with Darren Gilshenan and Lisa McCune leading the way.  The stage design, lighting and sound all work very well in Wharf 1’s floor level ‘corner of the space’ shape with the audience on three sides, which is the regular arrangement here, at Belvoir and with a slight variation at the Ensemble – the established practical version what was once called ‘theatre-in-the-round’.

It’s the writing, and maybe in the directing of the development phase of this new work, which makes the play intriguing.  Scenes are laid out in a complicated arrangement of flashes backwards and forwards, in which the beginning of the second hour (after a decent 20 minute interval) seems as though it might be about to repeat a cycle – except that it doesn’t.  Unexpectedly, bits of information are filled in, and in the process, changes in relationships take place, not only between Paul and Gabby but also between them and their old-university, now married too, friends Marty and Kim.  And including Lucy.

Yet the play is not “memorable” (by which my friends said they meant that they did not feel locked in by powerful emotions).  Despite the content and strength of acting of many scenes which were capable of engendering such emotions, the deliberateness of the structuring of the play became an end in itself.  Clever though it was, the drama felt contrived.  The author’s (or maybe the director’s) hand was revealed.

I feel a bit cruel quoting from ‘A message from Andrew Upton”, the artistic director of Sydney Theatre Company, who wrote in the program By any measurement, Sue Smith came late to playwriting.  Up until a few years ago, her writing lived mainly on the small screen.  Judging by her example, I think there’s something to be said for a writer stretching new muscles at a time when the ideas and experiences that surround them are thoroughly grown up.  This seemed rather condescending when I read it before seeing the show, and I still feel that because the ideas in the play are ‘thoroughly grown up’.

Geordie Brookman wrote in his Director’s Note that ...there is a deep knowledge at the centre of the text that can see that life’s journey bruises us and within each bruise exists both joy and sadness.  Here, indeed, is grownup-ness.

So I’ve concluded that the skills that Sue Smith has developed in her writing ‘mainly on the small screen’ show through in the clever structuring of the action, but that writing ‘memorable’ work for the stage entails creating the illusion that the scaffolding of the drama is invisible – until long after seeing the show, when the emotional power has waned somewhat in reflection, and an academic interest in the engineering behind the scenes might be indulged. 

Just as Paul and Gabby are fascinated by the study of the Incas’ hidden engineering techniques in constructing the emotional wonder of Machu Picchu.