Monday, June 13, 2016

A Man with Five Children by Nick Enright

A Man with Five Children by Nick Enright.  Darlinghurst Theatre Company at Eternity Theatre (39 Burton Street, Darlinghurst, Sydney), June 3-26, 2016-06-13

Director:  Anthony Skuse

Designers: Production – Georgia Hopkins; Lighting – Christopher Page; AV – Tim Hope; Sound – Katelyn Shaw

Cast:  Jemwel Danao (Roger); Chenoa Deemal (Jessie); Charlotte Hazzard (Susannah); Jody Kennedy (Zoe); Ildiko Susany (Annie); Anthony Taufa (Doug); Aaron Tsindos (Theo); Jeremy Waters (Gerry); Taylor Wiese (Cameron).

Reviewed by Frank McKone
June 11

Nick Enright was obviously from the generation fascinated, yet bemused, by the television series by Michael Apted: 7-Up.  That began in 1964 with a group of seven-year-olds representing the lower, middle and upper classes of Apted’s England.  It grew into interviews every seven years (with those of the original 14 who were willing) and you can read about the history up to 56-Up in London’s The Telegraph

As in 7-Up, obsessive documentary maker, Gerry, in Enright’s play, first takes the children to the zoo.  However, he offers an interview each year on the same day, Australia Day, until they reach 21.

His five children represent something of the ethnic and cultural diversity of Australia, the play beginning life as “a workshop exercise with students at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts in 1998”, as Skuse notes in the Program.

Roger is Australian-born.  His father is a wealthy Malysian engineer; his mother a Philippina.  Jessie’s mother is Aboriginal – a Murri, with a strong public presence politically on Indigenous issues.  Zoe is a standard working-class Anglo with little interest in education; while Cameron (only known as Cam) is Zoe’s male equivalent.  Susannah is from a successful Anglo background, already wanting to be a doctor or a teacher.

Wikipedia reports “The premise of the film was taken from the Jesuit motto 'Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man', which is based on a quotation by Francis Xavier.”  Gerry quotes the same idea, with the twist that he wants to see what really happens.

But Wikipedia also reports “The Up series has been criticised by both ethnographers and the subjects themselves for its editing style. Mitchell Duneier has pointed out that Apted has the ability to assert causal relationships between a character's past and present that might not actually exist..... Apted has stated in interviews that his ‘tendency to play God’ with the interviews was ‘foolishness and wrong.’”  It seems to me that it was this concern that Nick Enright took up in his play.  What would be the real relationships between Gerry and his five children, which may or may not appear on the tv screen?

And so we see on stage the children with Gerry, or sometimes not, more or less at yearly intervals, including live video as he films them as well as recorded video as it appeared on tv.  Until at the age of 35, with Roger missing, killed by rebels attacking tourists in an Asian country, the remaining four, plus partners Annie (Cam), Doug (Zoe) and Theo (Jessie), make the decision not to go on with the project.

To attempt to tell the story of all that happens in two hours running-time (plus 20 minute interval) would not be sensible, but it is fair to say that concerns about Gerry’s intentions, motivations, demands, sexual relations and even mental stability become of as much interest as the lives of the children growing up. 

Though the play is never didactic – it plays like a social documentary – it certainly is about the ethics and integrity of this film maker.  And in being that, it for me raises concerns about the use of photos and videos, especially on uncontrolled social media platforms – something that Enright and his workshop students would have hardly thought of in 1998.  And this is apart from the power of money to insist on prurient excitement on television (such as in the latest Bear Grylls series of “reality” extreme risk adventure).

Acting and design is very effective in this production of A Man with Five Children, in making the rapid transitions between episodes at different ages and levels of maturity and understanding for each character – including the adult from the beginning, Gerry – especially taking into account that the actors appear both physically on stage as well as in close-up video, often of ‘themselves’ when younger when we watch them watching the recorded takes.

Wikipedia records that “Apted has said: ‘I hope to do 84 Up when I’ll be 99’”. Enright’s Gerry lasts only 28 years before his time is up.  But after all, that was to make 28 shows, while Apted’s only up to 8 so far with only 4 more to go, 7 years apart.  Perhaps the real film maker Apted will make it, while the fictional Gerry could only just make it up to age 59, according to my calculations.

Darlinghurst Theatre Company has a history from small beginnings in 1992 until now being permanently settled in the Eternity Theatre.  By now Executive Producer Glenn Terry might be feeling a bit like Enright’s Gerry, except that his ‘children’ are not giving up the project.  The next show (after you’ve made sure you see this one) is Broken by Mary Anne Butler which has won both the Victorian Premier’s Best Drama and Literature prizes.  July 29 to August 28.