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The Business

Belvoir presents THE BUSINESS by Jonathan Gavin, based on VASSA ZHELEZNOVA by Maxim Gorky, in the Upstairs Theatre at the Belvoir St Theatre, Sydney.

This is a new Australian play by Jonathan Gavin, set in the 1980’s about a successful business family that is on the cusp of inter-generational change. The heirs, spoilt by the wealth of the hard work of their parents, are waiting to indulge the spree that wealth without responsibility can give. They want to sell up the business and indulge (“I want a yacht!”). But there is still life in the old guard-gal yet, and mum is not going to hand it over without a struggle. We witness that struggle.

The focus of the Belvoir collaborators has been on the middle class bourgeoise with fairly exaggerated and gross satire worthy of ‘youngsters’ who never lived through the ’80’s and possibly believe that Sir Les Patterson is a real person and that this is the kind of play he would write if he could, consistently, put pen to paper. Certainly, the actors and designers (Set: Verity Lamb, Costumes: Stephen Curtis.) have honed in on the grotesque elements of some fronts of the remembered years of “GREED IS GOOD” time. Their visual projections selectively and simplistically taking the contemporary retro-look of the eighties things, literally. It does mine laughter but is the play about something else other than comedy?

When dealing with the way the writing is presented in this production, as an audience, think of the rough and tumble melodramas of the television series DALLAS (1978-1991) with the hi-jinx of the Ewing family or even a little more frothily, DYNASTY (1981-1989) with the Carringtons, especially the campery of Alixis played by Joan Collins, and recast it with the documentary personas of the Australian documentary, ground breaking, reality television style entertainment, SYLVANIA WATERS (1991), with Noeline and Laurie and you have some of the sensibility of director Cristabel Sved’s production. 80’s music and all….. (Composer and Sound Design: Max Lyandvert).

If you can imagine the above proposition then the cast, maybe unconsciously inspired by the work of Chris Lilley, create physical characterisations that have some laugh out loud moments but have no depth or real truth beyond the satiric surface of their look to sustain the length of attention demanded by the play. Sketch comic costume and make-up turns are the substitution cover. John Leary (Simon) and Samantha Young (Natalie), hideously bloated with greed; Thomas Henning (Ronald) and Russell Kiefel (Gary) frighteningly, psychologically disabled. Grotesque, indeed – a house of horrors.

Eamon Flack, as Dramaturg to this production, in his program notes believes “THE BUSINESS is the play that the quintessential Australian playwright David Williamson never had the stomach to write. Indeed, no Australian playwright in the 80’s managed to deliver quite the mix of savagery, immaturity, excess and dramatic crassness that the decade truly deserved”.

David Williamson and all the others who failed to write that play in the eighties probably had too much belief, contextual awareness and balanced insight into that society to have the need to write it. Besides, Barry Humphries seemed to be chasing down that observational work in his own full length evening entertainments with ruthless surgical precision (1962-2010) and was working in a form that was more dramatically useful for that satiric work, than the two-act play structure allowed or warranted.

Instead, THE BUSINESS by Jonathan Gavin, seems to reflect the collaborators and maybe the artistic sensibilities of the new Belvoir team of 2011, and, so, the society of this time, more accurately, than the above claimed 1980’S. In a recent program at Pact, a young emerging artist Nat Randall in her creation CHEER UP KID (TINY STADIUMS’ DOUBLE BILL) created what I believe in our contemporary worldview/cultural malaise, three remarkable characters of flawed losers/lost people, that seemed to signal for me the present alarming state of lost moral compass, hope and faith in the excess of so much of our present cultural consciousness. Mr Gavin’s play while having similar pointed ambitions for acerbic critique, fails ultimately, because of directional choices, despite the model that Maxim Gorky in his play VASSA ZHELEZNOVA offered and ought to have inspired these artists too.

Last year, Mr Gavin revealed a play of startling skill, compassion and committed social responsibility in BANG. I remember, reading, that the play had been in development for several years in the hands of a collective, including the director Kim Hardwick. THE BUSINESS, on the other hand, was commissioned by Belvoir’s artistic team in August of last year, and from a literal translation of Gorky’s play by Karen Vickery, began a rehearsal in March with a working third draft. Only a third draft (!) and it undecided and incomplete, therefore. An eight-month gestation period, only. Was it enough? The play was written as the production took shape about it! Not enough, I reckon. This is where the venture may have come unstuck, for the adaptation and some of the under-developed dramatic movement of the text, which often petered out of directional energy in performance, and left us marooned in odd, unfilled pauses, may have benefited with more time to sort out the structural issues and subtle character writing. The dramaturgy too loose, too brief in its responsibilities?

VASSA ZHELEZNOVA, was twice written by Maxim Gorky. Once for Romanov Russia (1910) and again for Stalinist Russia (1932). Neither versions up to the mark of his THE LOWER DEPTHS (1902) and SUMMERFOLK (1905). Karen Vickery and John Clark presented in a NIDA COMPANY production, 19 years ago a mash up of both the VASSA sagas. The Vassa figure, the wife and mother to this family, ruthlessly takes charge of the family business with a pre-meditated murder of her husband and a manipulation of her children. The view is savage, cruel and uncompromisingly chilling. Ultimately overtly melodramatic in both versions which prevents it from standing equal with the other two mentioned works.

This is what may have inspired Lillian Hellman’s savage family and business saga THE LITTLE FOXES (1939 play; 1941 screenplay) for, the principal female figure, Regina Giddens similarly, murders her husband and manipulates the surviving family to gain control of the family business. Ms Hellman was a devoted socialist and admirer of the Russian revolution’s intentions, and probably well acquainted with the Gorky oeuvre. In the film version, Bette Davis is a towering study of considered and irresistible evil. Lindy Davies in the John Clark production, a tremendous force of matriarchal power and conviction, giving a performance that even shadowed the tremendous John Krummel as the husband (the company also included Jackie Mc Kenzie, Karen Vickery among others).

In THE BUSINESS, the naturalistic performance of Sarah Peirse as Van, the mother figure, the Vassa stand-in, lacks the intensity and power of the potential of the role. This is a minor key tonal choice rather than the major key it demands to focus her and shape the others about her. Maybe, the fact that Mr Gavin has removed the savagery of murder of her husband, has weakened the structural critique and focuses on the white collar forgery as the principal crime. Diluting the force of the original, immensely. As if the present newspaper headlines do not reveal the many Lady Macbeth’s around us. Ms Peirse certainly has the models to bring to bear on the role even if the writer and dramaturge have weakened the actual story for her. For it is here, the production flounders. If Van lacks the focused energy of ruthless criminal energy the play sags. Whether, as it is in the Gorky, written, or possibly, in the Gavin, only intimated.

However, there is some compensation, for the tepidness of this Van, in the playing from the hugely complex reading that Kate Box brings to bear, emotionally, intellectually and inventively as Anna, the gradual co-conspirator for power in the play. Ms Box in her entrance, even subdues the possible laughter of her appearance in the ridiculous fashion design statement of her first costume and, brings a mood of sub-textual possibility that the writing fails to equip her with. Whirlpools of a plotting mind swim under the skin of this apprentice ‘monster’ (what would Ms Box have made of Sonia in the STC UNCLE VANYA, I wonder, retrospectively? Ms Box is a great artist, in my reckoning of her talent and work on the recent Sydney stages). Similarly, the short scene between Jodie Kennedy, as Jennifer, and Ms Box brings the play alive with real life objectives and not just satirical surfaces. Both these actors have a sense of the Gorky, bitter view of certain elements of the human animal and briefly the play bristles with the pointed quills of possible bloody weaponry of the female psychology. It is a moment of the real thrill of the possibility of this play.

I should add that I was bewildered by the characterisation in Mr Henning’s performance, as Ronald, in this production, that went for laughter far too often, and maybe it was the divided tonal approach of the other collaborators that undermined Mr Henning’s efforts. For in a darker approach to the play, Mr Henning’s performance would truly have been sinister not just emotionally pathetic, as it stands at the moment in the experience of it in relation to the other actor’s offers. For here was a cousin to Shakespeare’s Richard III, indeed. Deformed both physically and in the corrupt nurturing bosom of this family.

If this is so, one does wonder then, if there is more to this text then, than the glancing surface glimmers of the period satiric comedy observations? Maybe Ms Sved has not really had the time to realise the text beyond the short rehearsal available to secure a beginning, middle and end to the play to open on April 27th, 2011, with such a brief writing time (2 drafts!!!) let alone a studied consideration of what the real offers in the text may be, considering the play’s heritage? Or was it an inadvertent diversion by the clever designers and other actors comedic instincts that pulled the production to juvenile satire? Too much Australian drama has been drawn to the larrikin traditions of the Aussie humour over and above the dark consideration that we are all possible criminals with voracious appetites for the easy choices to immoral or unethical choices, and we just hate to culturally confront and portray it unflinchingly: the ugly human truths behind our deflecting Aussie-humour traits. Moral corruptions for business profits. (Nigel Jamieson in his telling of the ANZAC story, GALLIPOLI for the STC began to hint at the other side of the Australian soldier abroad in that terrible war recently. Hardly remarked upon, of course).

That Mr Gavin has the potential to be a great writer is in the proof of BANG. I would suggest the writing in THE BUSINESS as is, is better than we are seeing in this production, and that the further potential of Mr Gavin’s cleverness is in the luxury of proper time for this commission to be nurtured by Belvoir. Eight months seems a ridiculous prescription. History tells us so, except for an occasional inspired genius. They are few and far between. A lesson to be learned surely? WHEN THE RAIN STOPS FALLING by Andrew Bovell was three odd years in the making and it was the last, other great Australian play I have seen.

TIME is necessary. Nurturing is what the writer requires.

Like Belvoir’s Ibsen adaptation of THE WILD DUCK, I suspect a speedy superficiality in the textual preparation of these two texts. I should hope otherwise. But…

P.S. A digression. It is curious indeed, as to the amount of Russian origin in the repertoire of Sydney theatre this year and I wonder why.

Nida’s production of Bulgakov’s FLIGHT in 2010.CHEKHOV’S Uncle Vanya. GOGOL’S The Diary of a Madman, PASTERNAK’S Doctor Zhivago, DOSTOEVSKY’S Notes from Underground, BULGAKOV’S The White Guard, GORKY’S, Vassa Zheleznova: A Mother (adapted as The Business for Belvoir Theatre), and then CHEKHOV’S The Seagull and Chekhov Short story, THE KISS. Later in the year Max Lyandvert, as the Artist Associate at NIDA for 2011 is creating a work around the text of THE IDIOT by Dostoevsky.

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