Saturday, November 11, 2017

Boys Will Be Boys

Boys Will Be Boys by Melissa Bubnic.  The Street Theatre, Canberra, October 27 – November 11, 2017.

Creative Team:
Director – Caroline Stacey; Musical Composition and Direction – Jess Green; Movement Direction – Emma Strapps; Production Design – Imogen Keen; Lighting Design – Niklas Pajanti; Sound Design – Kimmo Vennonen.

Astrid – Pippa Grandison; Priya – Isha Menon; Arthur – Dianna Nixon; Harrison – Joanna Richards; Isabelle – Kiki Skountzos

Reviewed by Frank McKone
November 8

The essence of Bubnic’s play is to be wary, very wary, of mentoring young talent: if they are worth mentoring you can expect them to usurp your job.

The importance of Boys Will Be Boys is that the theme is played out by two women – mentor Astrid, mentee Priya – working in the worst world of competitive men: a stockbroking firm.  This setting is horribly symbolic of the world of work at large where it is still true that practical power and decision-making is largely in the men’s domain.  The point is made bitter by the author’s injunction that all the parts, male and female, are to be played by women actors.

The value of The Street’s production of this play is in the top-class casting, directing and design.  Though the episodic nature of the scenes makes it seem a long time within its 90 minute run before the climactic point is reached, it is stunning when it happens, and the aftermath is depressing as the truth of women’s position sinks in.

The set design was particularly successful – better than the previous Sydney and London productions – by taking us away from any picture of ordinary realism.  The play is symbolic and metaphorical.  A plain looking office-setting does not express the sense of extraordinary self-aggrandisement central to the pure money-making business (Sydney Theatre Company 2015).  Steps up to the ‘trading floor’ above, each side of a row of toilets (Bush Theatre, London 2016) gets closer to what is needed. 

But the several floor-to-ceiling highly reflective yet semi-transparent swivelling rich-looking panels, which could open and close in myriad unexpected ways, provided the right kind of farcical feeling as characters rushed into and out of the main acting space.  Each time a gap opened, the roar of the trading floor – voices yelling prices, computers beeping or playing little Microsoft tunes, bells ringing like Wall Street in a sell-down panic – burst out; only to return immediately each swung shut to foreboding silence in Astrid’s office where the real machinations of power were taking place.  Steps down from that reality provided Astrid a space for intimacy with her audience – us – for her to sing ironic cabaret songs of love and longing.

We even applauded Pippa Grandison’s singing the first time, until we realised that this was Astrid, seeking some kind of human connection in this life where subtle attack is the best defence.  It was a shock to us as much as to Astrid when she realised that her only woman ‘friends’ – the determined newbie Priya who accepted rape as the price for the top account line Astrid covetted; and the professional corporate prostitute Isabelle who rejected Astrid’s bid for love which no man in this world could give her – that these women had beaten her at her own game.

And, of course, it was the firm’s owner/managing director, Arthur, played so coolly by Dianna Nixon, who controlled his puppets – his wife on the phone, his prostitute Isabella, and now his ethnically diverse “Indian”, the Bangladeshi Priya; and who now put Astrid right back in her place in the pecking order.

This staging of what might have been a ‘straight’ play about subterfuge and betrayal revealed an old Brechtian theatre technique which had seemed to fade away by the end of last century.  A musician accompanies the action on guitar, as a kind of narrator/commentator – but in music without the need for words, reminiscent of The Threepenny Opera.  The characters sing in role to us as if we are in a 1920s Berlin cabaret; or to bring to light a point about life experience as in Mother Courage and Her Children

The Creative Team – writer, director, composer and performer, designer, movement director, lighting and recorded sound designers – have produced the best piece of ‘alienation effect’ that I have seen for a long time.  The Street has shown us once again the value of its work in Canberra’s cultural landscape.

The understanding we are left with is to know how morally corrupt is the profit-for-profit’s-sake motive among men, and how much self-respect and love women inevitably lose by playing the game and seeming to win; or even worse, when tossed aside as losers.

It’s not a happy play, but a very effective play as produced and directed by Caroline Stacey at The Street.