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Photograph by Heidrun Lohr

Gwen in Purgatory

Company B Belvoir and La Boite Theatre Company present GWEN IN PURGATORY by Tommy Murphy at Belvoir St. Theatre, 31 July – 19 September, 2010

Advice for every writer: Write what you know.

In the program notes from Tommy Murphy:

“Memory is like writing a play. After about a year of writing, something clicked in the story and I was surprised to discover that much of the play is in fact underpinned by disputed memories. Perhaps this is a likely conflict in a family, among people who may have opposing interpretations of their shared history and shared identity. The voices in this play stem from people I know and love but as soon as they found their way to the page they were characters bending according to dramatic impulses and artistic imperatives. Now that they reach the stage, the characters are merely impressions of those inspiring people. A play is a rectified account of life.”

Set today in the outer sprawl of Queanbeyan, near Canberra, on a new housing estate, determinedly self sufficient 90 year old Gwen (Melissa Jaffer) has just moved into a new, it looks enormous, house, ‘beige-peachy’, stock fittings with convenient washable tile floor, surrounded by unpacked boxes of her property (Set Design, Stephen Curtis), awaiting an inaugural blessing from the Catholic priest, a Nigerian, Father Ezekiel (Pacharo Mzembe). Some of her family visit to check her progress: her son, Laurie (Grant Dodwell), a scrabbling and slightly dim deal maker of local council scale, and daughter, Peg (Sue Ingleton), a nurse (Chekhov’s Varya?) who is trying to escape the overwhelming family dedicated duty of the helpful, compliant sibling, and a grandson, Daniel (Nathaniel Dean), crippled psychologically by the consequences of absent parenting. Costumes helping creating these characters by Bruce McKinven, spot on in the details.

This razor-astute but gently expressed comedy of manners in the suburbs of Australia has the audience identifying the characters and either, sequentially, owning or disowning them; embracing or pushing them out of arms distance, stepping cautiously away, as the politics of familial histories and social responsibilities and economic values bubble and burst in this witnessed state of purgatory in the contemporary everyday of this Australian family’s life (PACKED TO THE RAFTERS!!). Obviously, by the end of the play, it is everyone’s lives this play has touched on, for much humour and ‘horror’ has been experienced by us, all. The empathetic journey with the characters changes for the observer dramatically throughout the play. From one to another we endow our empathy. Much laughter and horrible recognition. The audience is never quite sure who is the villain or the hero in this journey. Like all families the “opposing interpretations of their shared history” comes to cast shadows over previously accepted facts. Alliances shift. Mr Murphy’s identification in his writing of this family is truly known.

The performances by this company of actors has honed, and are still honing, an ensemble of alive sensibilities. They seem to be alert to all the elements of the characterisations of each other as they unfold in front of us – all the senses acutely aware, and reading the breathing intricacies of each other’s offers in the moment, and building a subtle living web of consequences. Each ‘instrument’ is primed, and collectively, the reading of the ‘musical score’ that Mr Murphy has written, as directed by Neil Armfield, is gorgeously humming – a chamber quintet of a first rate orchestra. No mean feat. It seems to me that Mr Murphy’s writing requires the actor’s toolbox of Stanislavski preparation for character and the musical skills of a first rate orchestra. Listening and playing the right ‘notes’ and shifting tempo and volumes collaboratively. Like the demands of a David Williamson text, looking deceptively easy in action, but fiendishly demanding in practice. This might appear, superficially, for the dilettante, but is, in actuality, demanding of the best of the professional artist.

Ms Jaffer is spectacular in her assessment and explication of this tough old gal, Gwen – as self determined a will in this suburban land as Lady Bracknell has in her milieu. Ms Ingelton deeply pathetic and moving as put upon, door matted Peg. Mr Dean is thorough and captivating in his creation of the pathetic underachiever and sadly ‘good’ but dim Daniel – the physical characteristics bravely accurate and yet craftily harnessed. Both Mr Mzembe and Mr Dodwell are generous in the depth of the playing of roles that are, relatively, underwritten and under complicated. Their achievement in filling out their opportunities admirable. (Father Ezekiel’s Mother’s journey to Lagos, mentioned often in the text, seems strangely unfinished or under developed – a red herring for my curiosity).

So, style is the primary victor in this project. For although the subject matter is easily recognisable and dear to all of our experiences, and amusing to attend to, the content, ultimately, does not always dig deep enough or punch hard enough. The final image of Gwen in a spotlight of frozen purgatory (Chekhov’s final entombed image of Feers?), with the ringing of alarm around her and us seems strangely imposed, rather than the accumulated revelation of the human predicament of Gwen. For, besides, Gwen has gradually revealed herself not just as an ailing soul or victim but someone with the same human manipulative genetics that Regina Giddens has in Lillian Hellman’s THE LITTLE FOXES. Gwen is no saint, and she demonstrates in the action of the play that she will use what ever influence and tactic she needs to achieve her own comfort and safety – her own objectives are pursued as selfishly, ruthlessly as the others – a car and a family carer in this newly acquired house. Being 90 has not dimmed this survivor’s armoury, rather it is part of her disguised weaponry. It is Peg, like Birdie, in the above mentioned play, that is the wreck, pulled between her own survival as an individual and the weight of familial duty, because of the family’s machinations for self aggrandisement and satisfaction. Will Peg get to heaven or be condemned to hell? This appeared to me to be poor Peg’s Purgatory and the title of the play, therefore cruelly ironic. OR am I just over identifying?

The blurb at the back of the printed text tells us: “Written specially for Company B Belvoir, GWEN IN PURGATORY is Tommy Murphy’s brilliant existential comedy about an African missionary in the wilderness of Australian suburbia.” However in the text being played at the moment on the stage at Upstairs Belvoir the idea of an African Catholic Missionary in the midst of the wilderness of a contemporary Australian family is still mostly only an idea, an unmassaged image. He IS in the wilderness but Father Ezekiel is simply a peripheral observer of the family drama and has little or no impact to the action of the drama. He adds little to the apprehension of the terrible family drama evolving in these times, except as a passive witness. Whatever culture or race this figure might have been makes little difference to the action of this story. Neither in the writing or the staging does Father Ezekiel become central to the experience of the audience. I had thought that the cultural presence of this new member of the Australian society was going to assist us to see through a looking glass darkly the world of this white, suburban, Christian (Catholic) family and give us a contemporary perspective of some challenge. This was not to be. I felt the presence of this Nigerian priest was somewhat a token image rather than an illuminating dramatic tool. The number of priests of seeming African background (based on my apprehension of their surnames, only) that Mr Murphy thanks in the program suggested to me that there would be a more complicated point of view from this very unique presence in Australian dramatic literature.

These are carping musings that I and others, who have seen the play, have contemplated and discussed, and, I think, worth airing, for Mr Murphy is one of the interesting writers of his generation. There is a consistency of striving vision in his output, and he does get his plays on in the major companies regularly. There is a popular response to the work.

Although, not as insightful or as incisive as Jonathan Gavin’s BANG, about the multi-cultural lives of our evolving Australian society and the consequences of this plastic melding, which was presented in the B Sharp program downstairs in June, this is a terrific night in the theatre. A serious look at Us that is still painfully Chekhovian in its comic realities. One does laugh through tears.

2 replies to “Gwen in Purgatory”

  1. I agree with your comments about the shallowness of elements of the play. It is my view that it suffers from very lazy dramaturgy, which has meant the play has got nowhere near it potential. A real shame.
    Archehtypes, stereotypes, repetitive humor and superficiality are not things that, in my view, make plays a 'tour de force'.
    A decent dramaturge may have helped Tommy realise a much more complex, surprising, heartbreaking and truthful piece of work.

  2. Insightful review, Kevin. An entertaining play, a warm and honest production, a good night had by all – yet I was left with a sense of promise tantalisingly unfulfilled; under-written characters and a lack of subtextual levels to add irony. Agree with Anonymous that good dramaturgy would have resulted in a much more complex play – because Tommy is capable of it. And that makes it more frustrating! May-Brit

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