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Photo by Lisa Tomasetti 

Sydney Theatre Company presents FURY. A New Play by Joanna Murray-Smith in Wharf 1, Hickson Rd.

FURY is a new play from Joanna Murray-Smith commissioned by the Sydney Theatre Company (STC).

The parents of 16 year old Joe (Harry Greenwood), Alice, a neuroscientist (Sarah Peirse), Patrick,(Robert Menzies), a successful novelist, believe that they have led a good life, and striven to make ‘goodness’ part of their gift, in their actions, to their community. In fact, Alice is soon to be given an Award based on her public social contribution. They have a life, that, many of a certain class, might dream of. Unfortunately, Joe, with a schoolfriend, Trevor, has made a very ‘politically incorrect’ statement in a very public manner. It requires reprimand and apology. A teacher (Tahki Saul) is brought in from the very prestigious and private school to help the families to navigate their way out of a possible public disgrace – debacle. A young reporter from the University, Rebecca (Geraldine Hakewill) while preparing a story on Alice, the neuroscientist and her upcoming award, scents a bigger story. Consequently, secrets and lies are revealed. Secrets and lies of tragic dimensions.

Joanna Murray-Smith tells us, although the story is not part of her life, she is

the child of two passionate, smart idealistic people with a profound sense of social responsibility. Out of this came the starting point for this play – the question: “How do the children of radicals define themselves against the backdrop of their parents’ ideological convictions?” But plays don’t write to order and I found myself also examining aspects of marriage, family and morality. How do we manage our instinctive desire to shape our children and our children’s refusal to oblige? How do marriages negotiate secrets? And what happens if we build our adult lives and relationships on the foundations of youthful flaws? Does the past always insinuate itself into the present, wreaking a kind of insidious destruction? And finally, can we redeem ourselves from who we once were?

The director, Andrew Upton, in the program, notes that “Joanna is a great observer of people. Subsequently her plays have a satiric edge, and humour is a vital ingredient to leavening the gravity of her themes.” HONOUR (1995) and RAPTURE (2002) – a play of her’s that I saw at the Malthouse in Melbourne – are examples of that, and FURY has the same, close observant eye that skewers the middle classes with the brilliant, laser accuracy of a mordant wit that knows her world of concern well, and she distracts us too comfortably, as she gradually focuses into the core of some darker elements of a contemporary life, a personal tragedy. The sardonic observations are prepared and delivered by Ms Murray-Smith with great control and skill, her writerly technique for comedy is higly tuned, one has great reason to be amused – her understanding of the Australian syntactical rhythms and word-vowel musicalities with her keen ear for the idiosyncratic vernacular vocabulary of her people is spot-on and comfortingly recognisable – diverting. And with this shielding stealth she leads one gradually to a dramatic place where one is gripped, seized with a shock and then, in FURY’s case, to a dawning sense of betrayal and a kind of possible grief that stills the theatre in its final 40 minutes.

Alice tells us that history is the recording of happenings, which are the result of passionate actions. (from the Macquarie dictionary -” Passionate: affected or dominated by passion or vehement emotion.”) These passionate actions, emanating from a “fury”, may only take a few seconds to commit, but, the consequences can be far reaching, endless, and absolutely irreversible (“Fury: a frenzied or unrestrained violent passion, anger”). So, it was a terrible coincidence, for me, to see this play soon after the Boston Marathon acts of terrorism, with the graphic television coverage still in my mind’s eye, and the release of the new Robert Redford film THE COMPANY YOU KEEP (2013), concerning a group of radical anti-war protesters of 1969 who began a campaign of bombings on American soil. They were called The Weather Underground and innocent lives were lost. Some were sent to prison. A few vanished. Ms Murray-Smith’s play echoed these recent, co-incidental events, violently, within me, at Wharf 1. The Redford film tells of the “fury” of the FBI and their relentless search to bring the vanished terrorists to justice. In this play, The Eumenides – the Kindly Ones – the Furies, have waited and, at last, in their own good time revealed the past of Alice, too grave to be permanently hidden, and in a contemporary kind of way, invoke the vengeance of the gods to bring her to a torture of exposure in the world at large, and, especially, to her unsuspecting family, at a moment of public adulation, to hubristically sting her with conscience, a consciousness that she had somehow buried, in what one must imagine to have being a difficult state of denial. None of Alice’s ‘good acts’ will be able to balance out a furious, but calculated, act of her own passionate youth. Fury is redressed with fury.

2013 is a big year for Ms Murray-Smith. Firstly, she had the first US premiere of THE GIFT at the Geffen Playhouse in L.A. beginning the 29th January. Next, FURY at the STC, beginning on the 19th April. She then premiered another new play, TRUE MINDS, beginning 25th April at the Melbourne Theatre Company (MTC), and then, an adaptation of HEDDA GABLER for the State Theatre Company of South Australia (STCSA), beginning the 26th April. Her play DAY ONE, A HOTEL, EVENING also appears at the Black Swan (in Perth) beginning 15th June. The April dates are amazingly stacked up. Three openings in an eight day period! The pressure to finesse the works for these commissioning companies must have been full on. Ms Murray-Smith’s availability, for all, must have been spread very thin. Ms Murray-Smith, as a writer, can claim exhaustedly: when it rains it pours.

So, FURY, on stage at The Wharf 1, seems to me a play still in-process, in progress, and certainly in need of further ‘workshop’ development. As it stands there are still obvious unresolved character histories, developments; comic genre writing that does not always feel as if it comes truthfully from the character delivering it, amusing though it may be – style over-riding character truths; characters that sometimes still feel as if they are still dramaturgical tools: the teacher, the reporter, the other lower middle class family, Bob (Yure Covitch) and Annie (Claire Jones), not comfortably appearing within the ‘landscape’ of the world of the play, being, still, satirical caricatures/mouthpieces for the author’s comedy; and characters a shade too familiar from other works of Ms Murray-Smith’s repertoire, some laden with breathtaking co-incidence of presence in the action: the reporter.

In my experience with new work, in the United States, this production is at a place one would see at the beginning of the development of a major play, the first of many full productions, to workshop and refine the play, across the country, before it opened in a major city for final exposure. Australia is so small an Arts community that that is not possible, and so it is a shame that the development here, seems to have been squashed, not able to have the dramaturgical rough edges planed back, the incongruities made more subtle, with the comfort of more time. Is Ms Murray-Smith’s amazing 2013 schedule too limiting to be able to give it the full authorial attention it needed, perhaps? How can this planning happen, between companies? Is there no possible way to reasonably plan, co-operatively, to achieve the best product possible? FURY, is a play that should have more metamorphosing time allowed to mature to the great potential that is evident in this production. FURY has the potential to be a very good play. The pressure of TIME is always the big issue in developing new work. Flexibility and good sense from the commissioning companies and the writer – is it not possible?

Whether the pressure of sorting the playwriting pre-occupied, dominated, the production rehearsal or not, I can’t be sure, but the acting itself, needs more maturing as well. Attention from the director. Sometimes the information in the text is insufficient to reveal the character, or, is still, primitively, merely a tool for the exposition of the writing, and so the back story of the characters needs to be highly developed by the actor – imagination. Mr Saul, has an almost impossible job to put flesh on to the textual skeleton/function of his task, the teacher (not even named!) – fortunately, Mr Saul has personality and a sense of gravitas and makes an impression. Ms Hakewill, finds it a problem to bring to life the spare dialogue, interrogative questions, of early scenes as the reporter, Rebecca, – they sound in her acting choices like a script recitation rather than word-by-word revelations of a motivated character – and Rebecca certainly has enough plot development, motivation, to be more interesting, “loaded”, in those early scenes than what Ms Hakewill delivers. However, all the actors have some or a good occasion of truth and secure revelation, with scenes scattered throughout the work they are given, but, not many are consistent in that occasional confidence. Mr Covich is terrific in his quietly assertive reasoning in the parent meeting scene (did not Ms Reza’s GOD OF CARNAGE come ringing back in remembrances from times past?). Ms Jones’ Annie was effective in her last scene with Alice – the sense of class wisdom and dignity, an understated achievement.

The actors, mostly, seemed to be simply giving a personalised response to the material, which is the greater part of acting – sure – but, as yet, have not built in the complete knowledge of the life forces of the actual characters in the given circumstances that they reveal – the differences from themselves (the actor), to the experiences that create and motivate their characters. I was not completely convinced, for instance, of the professional lives of Alice and Patrick and the insights that those professions may have given them in the circumstances of the writer’s narrative. When the behaviour of Joe is revealed these two parents seem to have no resources from within their professional lives – neuroscience and literature – to analyse and pinpoint the real possible cause – it seemed odd to me, and, that this did not reveal itself, later, as a character trait, that is , deliberate obfuscation by them to the truth to protect themselves, it undermined my complete absorption to my belief in them. If it is not in the text, as explanation, then it can be in the invented inner monologue in the moment of acting.

Ms Peirse – and it is, I admit, a matter of taste, where agreement is not necessary but disagreement may be fruitful, in Alice’s focused moments in the later scenes of exposure and its consequences, tends, to reach for the theatrical melodrama of them, rather than, a revelation of terrible realities – the similar, but different, choices played by Susan Sarandon and Julie Christie in their moments of conscience in THE COMPANY YOU KEEP, are object lessons of comparison, both in the truth of the exposure and the playing of it. Ms Peirse’s work seemed to be of another time of theatrical acting, it lacked any truthful internal monologue to be intuited/endowed by the audience and instead was all exhibited, external generalised characteristics, to be objectively watched by the audience – and indeed Alice’s behaviour seemed to hamper the possibilities of the responses for Patrick (Mr Menzies), except as a masked, squatting in front of the stool, burying up-stage, the storytelling revelation, of the impact on him of the exposed secret, for the audience.

The outstanding performance came from Mr Greenwood as Joe, for not only was there a great sense of personalisation, identification, ownership of his character, it seemed, he also brought an embodied sense of the psychological history of his up-bringing and cultural environment. It was a fully realised character with a set of sulking but open vulnerabilities, made up, synthesised from the actor’s life and his imaginative building from the circumstances that Ms Murray-Smith had given him. One of Mr Greenwood’s opening scenes has him answering a list of questions to which he simply replies, “No.” – a veritable cascade of no’s. And each was so imaginatively activated – motivated – and, plotted, to reveal an emotional journey, fed from Joe’s life, that I laughed with each utterance – each “No” a complete and different statement. His presence, even in silent scenes, was storytelling with a radiating pursuit of contributive relevant revelations. His ability to register his narrative, his active listening, in the scenes, totally engrossing.

The design solution by David Fleischer, one of the co-resident designers for STC, under the guidance of Mr Upton, is an impressive architectural statement, but has little real practicality in supporting the actualities of the circumstance spaces or emotional narrative of the play. A grey-blue set of monoliths of what could be concrete walls – looking more like an interior museum/art space than any of the places in the play, which is mostly domestic – with a real terrazzo floor and next to no furniture, is a cold and counter intuitive sensory offer for this play, FURY. It was indicative to me of the conceptual impulses of the designer, when in the program, in the Designer’s note, Mr Fleischer replies to the question – What aspect of the production are you most excited about? – “The clothes. The floor.” and then goes on to talk of the “fabulous floor” – no reference to the subject matter of the play, not the contemporary themes or characters, but the clothes and the floor. It will be, is indeed, part of theatre fable, already, that floor! Just what did it cost? Particularly, when one observed that the STC had only one assistant- stage-manager to move the design pieces that needed to be wheeled on to the stage, into this art gallery space, and off again when the scene location is been set or struck, requiring the actors themselves to assist to set the props and furniture. Did the floor cost push the production budget and maybe precluded the cost of hiring more stage management?! The lighting by Nick Schliepper and Chris Twyman kept the feel of the ‘epic’ architectural statement rather than focusing or assisting any warmth to the scale of a human tragedy. Similarly, the composition and sound design, by Max Lydandvert, in the many scene changes, though beautiful (as the composition was for MRS WARREN’S PROFESSION) had a spiritual, ethereal other worldliness, very much rarefied from the visceral emotions of the character action of the play.

Was Mr Upton, hi-jacked by the design elements? For, he did not seem to know, considering the limited furniture, and the positioning of it, how to organise his actors, for what were really very naturalistic situations/conversations, how to stage the actors for audience communication. How to bring actors into entrance and exits – the set being so impractical for the action of the text. As for the scenes themselves, usually, one actor sat on a chair and the other, without any real character motivation other than the naked stage necessity of actor communication- to be seen and heard by the audience -would circle it. It took one back to the hapless choices he made in his production of O’Neill’s LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT, a few years ago. Perhaps, there too, he was out manouvered by his designer. The look, the metaphor triumphing over the necessity of the simple stage craft of moving the actors, believably on and off the stage to tell the story.

FURY, is a play still in process/development, but still, worth the time (and money, $95 – philistine, I know) spent with it. I hope it evolves further.

2 replies to “Fury”

  1. There's a moment of great relief about fifteen minutes into the play, when Alice and Patrick get the news that their son is in deep shit at school following an incident of vandalism. Up until this point we've listened to Alice respond to questions from the journalist cum PHD student and we've heard the married pair trade quips and digs and observations… there's a disturbing feeling that the author is as interested in easy shots at cultural heroes (Sting, Peter Carey …) as in the development of a drama. But with that news and the shock, fear and anger that take hold of them, one senses that at last the play has hit its stride.
    Many things then take place that for me were unbelievable, given the context that the author had already set up. Very soon – when all we know is that the boy has 'graffitied a mosque' this sophisticated about-to-be-garlanded scientist Mum is beating her son up as if she were one of those voters whom Senator Xenophon predicts are going to take baseball bats to the ballot box on Sept 14. And her husband – almost a Booker candidate – stands by in horror and paralysis. No-one pauses to probe the boy's thought process; neither the scientist nor the writer shows any great interest in his mind. They give in completely to furious emotion, and it just didn't ring true.
    And then, as you explain Kevin, the plot thickens and we get a glimpse into the heart of Alice's long-concealed darkness.
    The production places doesn't give this paly an easy run. Despite all we are told about the comfort and splendour and warm burgundy colour of these people's lives, they appear to live behind sections of the security wall that divides Gaza or the West Bank from Israel. The two chairs on the set are non-descript and when a sink/counter unit is wheeled on stage it is plain as Jane in recessionary Spain. My eyes widened when the 'other mother' referred to the beautiful walls of Alice's house. Perhaps the intent was to make a critical comment about the 'inner truth' of the house that these two, Alice and Patrick, had constructed for themselves.
    Several times I wished that the actors had been placed in positions more open to the audience. At key moments the face of Ms Peirse was obscured to at least two thirds of the audience, and to a lesser extent this was a frustration during speeches from Mr Menzies.
    There is no doubt that at the heart of this work Ms Murray-Smith has a profound and potentially dynamite subject. And at times the actors do wonders to draw one back into the thick of things. I agree that most credit here goes to Mr Greenwood, who brings so many shades to his portrayal – alienation, brusqueness, anger, vulnerability…nothing ever seems out of place with what he has already set up. And I can give more credit than you Kevin to Ms Peirse. You found her too melodramatic in her key scenes, but I have to say that at the moment when the script required her to fall apart, I stopped feeling restless and was for a time completely held by the sight of a human being revealed so much against her will.
    A workshop process…yes, perhaps that would do the trick. I hope it would see off the scene in which the 'other mother' rejects Alice's offer of financial help…the spiteful ingratitude made no sense, given that both sets of parents had long ago bought into this world of private schools and Aussie aspiration…and it might do something about the incredible plot line that leads the journalist (who, God help us, is four years into a PHD thesis on something like social media and great romantic fiction) to confront her subject with truth that has lain hidden from all the world for maybe forty years.
    One only has to remember "Honour" at the Drama Theatre a couple of years ago to know that Ms Murray-Smith is a writer capable of taking an oft-treated subject and making something riveting of it.

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