Saturday, May 27, 2023

RUBEN GUTHRIE - Wander Theatre


Sam Collingwood as Ruben Guthrie

Written by Brendan Cowell – Directed by Ryan Street

Set design by Roz Hall and Mike Hall - Sound Design by Ryan Street

 Choreography by Amy McDonald – Props by Ro McPhee and Annabelle Hansen.

ACT Hub May 25 – 27 : Performance on May 25 reviewed by BILL STEPHENS.

This is the first production presented by Wander Theatre at ACT Hub, and is presented in conjunction with ACT Hub Development. It is impressive on so many levels.

Premiered at Belvoir Downstairs in 2008, Brendan Cowell’s play, “Ruben Guthrie” taps into a deep vein of Australian life. It asks the question, is it un-Australian to refuse a drink?’ with dialogue that is bleak, uncompromisingly coarse and often confronting, and as far as this writer is aware, this is the first Canberra production of this play.

Though Cowell's characters are flawed and hardly admirable, each has a compelling authenticity that makes the dialogue and the responses of the characters to their situations, immediately recognisable. 

The audience is introduced to Ruben Guthrie at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting where Guthrie is reluctantly baring his soul. He shares that he’s 29, the Creative Director of a cutting-edge advertising agency and engaged to a Czech supermodel. He exalts in being the life of the party.

The story dissolves into a series of flashbacks as the audience watch the events he is describing. It then continues in real time as the consequences of his responses to various events and characters play out.  

Sam Collingwood plays Ruben Guthrie. He gives a charismatic, enthralling performance that is so achingly committed and authentic that it’s impossible not to empathise with the character he has created, while being appalled at his decisions and actions.

Grace Fletcher (Zoya) - Sam Collingwood (Ruben Guthrie) - Maxine Eayrs (Virginia)
 in "Ruben Guthrie.

Grace Fletcher plays the supermodel Zoya, attracted by Guthrie’s charisma, deeply in love with him, but increasingly confused by his irresponsibility and lack of commitment. Zoya has a rival for Guthrie’s affections in Virginia, played by Maxine Aeyrs, who sees in Guthrie someone she can mould to achieve her own ambitions. Virginia is convinced her controlling methods will advantage both their futures.   

The third woman in Guthrie’s life is his mother Susan, played by Adele Lewin. The daughter of an alcoholic and married to another, Susan’s misguided attempts to save her son from his predicament only exacerbates his problem.

Nor are the three most significant men in his life any more helpful. His alcoholic father, played by Anthony Mayne, has difficulty in relating with his son, other than over alcohol.  

Guthrie's best friend Damien (Mischa Rippon) is homosexual and already addicted to alcohol and heroin. Damien encourages Guthrie to return to their old carousing lifestyle, not out of any concern for Guthrie’s welfare but to achieve his own goals.

Even Guthrie’s boss Ray,(Richard Manning), himself alcohol lubricated, sees Guthrie’s talents as relying on drugs and alcohol for its success.     

These characters were all realised with impressive finesse and confidence by each member of the cast, allowing the audience to become absorbed in the play rather than distracted by the competence of the actors. 

Particularly impressive was the way the actors avoided chasing the laughs. As it happens, despite the seriousness of the subject matter, there are plenty of laughs in the play, but these actors allowed any laughs to arise from the situation. Even when sitting on the sidelines, offstage, the actors maintained concentration, re-acting to the lines in character, as if they were still part of the on-stage action.

Similarly the quality of Ryan Street’s directing impressed. His production was staged on the floor of the hub, with the audience seated on either side of the acting area. Wine racks, cubes and a few key props made up the simple setting.  These racks and cubes were moved around quickly and efficiently by the actors and support staff to create various locales required by the play. Necessary props were removed or placed in position by the actors.

This staging proved so effective that it was not until later the realisation occurred that Sam Collingwood as Ruben Guthrie had not left the stage during the entire performance, except at interval, spending the entire performance, reacting and responding to the situations while the setting was changed around him.  

Maxine Eayrs (Virginia) - Sam Collingwood (Ruben Guthrie)
in "Ruben Guthrie"

The quality of the acting and production for “Ruben Guthrie” was of such standard to send one searching for the program and information about Wander Theatre and its members.  Maddeningly, as is becoming increasingly the case, the program was only accessible by QR code. Even then, it proved unhelpful in providing information as to the theatrical backgrounds of either the actors or the creatives.  The Wander Theatre website was no more helpful.

None-the-less, one must be thankful to ACT Hub Development for bringing Wander Theatre to attention. One looks forward to future discoveries through this initiative.   


                                        Production images by  Jeremy Tsuei