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Photo by Brett Boardman

Griffin Theatre Company presents CARESS/ACHE by Suzie Miller at the SBW Stables Theatre, Kings Cross, Sydney, 27 February – 11 April.

CARESS/ACHE is a new Australian play by Suzie Miller that has had a, relatively, long gestation. Ms Miller thanks the National Theatre in London for a studio development and the Griffin Theatre Company, and mentions Marion Potts, Liam Steele Choreographer and to Steven Hoggett, and Scott Graham (both of Frantic Assembly UK), Caleb Lewis, and Camilla Rountree for dramaturgy.

In her own words Ms Miller tells us:

CARESS/ACHE is a work that has been many years in the writing and will always be a piece that I am immensely connected to. In the lead up to the 2005 execution of young Australian Nguyen Tuong Van in Singapore following a conviction for drug trafficking, the Singaporean government asserted its rule that the young man could not be hugged (or hug) his desperate mother before his death. … Grappling with idea(s) such as these took me on a journey about what touch is in its many forms – an innate sensory element and expression of love and desire, its intense power for cruelty and abuse, and how interweaved such things can be. So too was I exploring the notion of being ‘touched’ by moments, poetry and art. The stories in this play are an attempt to follow these threads.

This is an extremely ambitious play, especially in terms of structure, and in this production has five actors playing multiple roles who appear and disappear in the interwoven action of the scenario. A scenario that reminded me of the complexities of the story telling in such a film as BABEL(2006), or Andrew Bovell’s play, SPEAKING IN TONGUES (1996).

On an all too familiar (for Sydney audiences) antiseptic white set (Set and Costume Design, Sophie Fletcher) with a gleaming steel ambulatory hospital table that later transforms/reveals a bath tub full of water, the names of the characters are projected onto the walls to keep us au fait with who is who, from story incident to story incident, along with some selected written interpolations informing us about the biological (and otherwise) sensations connected to ‘touch’ e.g.

Some human receptors are enclosed in a capsule of connective tissue. They react to light touch and are located in the skin of lips, eyelids, external genitals and nipples. It is due to these special receptors that these areas of the body are particularly sensitive.

There are two promising political points of interest ‘touched’ by the writer in this play (Ms Miller was once, interestingly for me, a Human Rights lawyer) that of the aforementioned Singaporean ‘cruelty’ (represented by Peter and Alice), and the other, that of the story of a young woman, Arezu (it means Hope, we are told several times!), the daughter of two Teheran-Iranian refugees, who wishes to return to the country of her parents and her other language, against the pleas of those parents.

However, both of these interests are, in my experience of the play, ‘buried’ in the larger and over-written scenarios of a doctor with post traumatic stress disorder (Mark) who cannot bear to be touched, as the consequence of a tragedy in an operating theatre, and his wife (Libby), who is uncomprehending of the possible depths of his emotional plight. Next, of a young woman (Saskia) who refuses to be touched, traumatically dislodged from ‘sanity’, by the betrayal of her writer/poet husband (Cameron) with another woman. Next again, of two women (Cate and Belinda) working in a phone sex enterprise.

The play depending on your sympathies, can sit then, somewhere between a moving telling of tragic events, which an enthusiastic audience seemed to applaud at the conclusion of the performance I attended, or a soft porn bore with a heavy sauce of sentimentality, camouflaging two political piquancies. The latter became my stance, by the end of it all.

Let’s look at some of the writing between Mark, the Doctor and his wife who has, in this scene, invaded his operating theatre:

Libby: Mark, you lost a patient,
It happens to surgeons all the time,
It’s part of the job. /
Mark: No!
Libby: You’re not fucking God. /
Mark: I’m working.
Libby: –
Mark: I’ll be home later.
Libby: –
Mark: I need you to go.
Libby: –
Mark: Get out.
Libby: It’s pathetic.
Mark: I said get out.

Mark goes to push her. So close, he stops himself.

Libby: Go on then.

She pushes herself up against him. Hard and rough.

Libby: Come on, grab my arm-
Touch my skin, go on, feel it,
feel the heat of me.

Her skin, her flesh, her smell, her sex.

He recoils and retreats.

Libby: Go on –
Put your hands on me,
hit me, scratch me, feel the pulse of me.

She goes to grab his hand and put it on her heart, but he pulls away, roughly, afraid.

She suddenly realises what the issue is.

Libby: Oh, my God –
You can’t -“

Duh! At last, I thought.

Next, in over-long sequences, involving the doubly betrayed Saskia ( although she never gets to, or even mention the other perpetrator of her ‘breakdown’, the other woman), which in its staged execution has ultimately contrived to have the guilty husband either naked or semi-naked on stage for long periods, his wife verbally, relentlessly, emotionally abuses him with demands such as the following quote – and this is a conclusion of a five page scene where nothing much else, but abuse from Saskia against her husband has happened. It is played in an emotional state of self-pitying ‘rage’:

… Saskia: Did you suck her nipples into your mouth, your tongue lingering over them, latch onto them like a fucking baby? Did YOU? Did you stick your hard fucking ‘big’ cock between her breasts, did she gasp and moan and look at you with that ‘come to me, baby’ look? Did she? Did You? Did you fuck her from behind, or on top? Up against the wall, over the bed. Did you? Did you do all that?

Cameron: No, no, NO, NO!
Of Course not.
I would never do that stuff-


Saskia: You just lay with her and
you stuck your cock in her,
is that it?

      Cameron blank.

Saskia: Answer me.

       He nods.

       She physically and emotionally slumps.

Saskia: God. Really? You really did?
You did that?


Saskia: I feel sick.

(She got her answer at last, I relievedly breathed, after 5 pages of build-up!)

This follows from an earlier sequence that had me asking, whilst squirming with embarrassment: Where was the blue pen of the dramaturgs? In reply to Saskia’s question of when did the betrayal happen, he tells her on the night of his recent poetry book launch, to which she says:

Saskia: Your book launch-?
But I was there-?
All our friends-
Oh God.
I left early so one of us would show up at YOUR fucking autistic nephew’s end-of-year concert.
So HE would feel supported!

OMG, I thought, that is a bit over-the-top, as a manipulating circumstance. Don’t you think? Clearly, others didn’t!

Maybe, instead, just simply: I left early. Or: I left early to attend your nephew’s concert. At least take out the highly emotive ‘autistic’ description?
Get the blue pencil, for god’s sake.

Need I quote some of the interchanges between the sex workers to further illustrate the influence of FIFTY SHADES OF GREY, the 2011 E L James popular novel sensation on our playwriting culture, at the Griffin Theatre Company, and what may has been supposed as what a sophisticated theatre audience might require to have a satisfying night out?
NO, definitely not.
The interchanges with the sex workers and their ‘clients” occupies some time in the text – chortle, chortle. Popcorn theatre! Co-incidentally, the film version of the James novel opened in Sydney the same week as this play premiered! Where to spend your time and money? In the theatre, or the cinema?

Buried in this welter of what I can only describe as live soft-porn were two interesting contemporary issues, but even when they did emerge in the scheme of things, they were then swamped, more often than not, with a mawkish sentimentality that made the effect of the writing and production risible. For instance, the slow motioning hug at the end of the play between the desperate mother of the executed son and the doctor who up till now couldn’t bear to be touched, with a background of music soundtrack swelling – that had underscored, unremittingly, the whole of the play, like a B-grade movie score. It was as if the Director, Anthony Skuse, hadn’t trusted the scene (the play) or that it could, possibly, work without the directional music cueing and extended ‘choreography’.

I can report that a number of the audience were weeping, and one wonders just how influential the co-incidental daily news stress concerning the Indonesian Government’s stand around the two Australians, Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, and their imminent execution, weighed into the emotions of some of the audience. I held my ground against the invitation to indulge my emotions. Present day politics have steeled me as a cynic around manipulation – especially when it is as ‘vulgar’ and ‘over-egged’ as it is here. A hard hearted adamant I can be, on occasion – especially when I believe that ‘over-kill’ is going on.

The actors acquit themselves fairly well and it seemed, on the night I attended, with a very committed emotional belief in the play. Best was Sabryna Te’o with her intellectual integrity to the opportunities in the writing managing a believability that was never questionable in the heat of any of the demands made of her by the writer and the director. So, too, Zoe Carides, as Alice, especially. Gary Clementson demonstrated subtle control as the abused husband, Cameron, and the courageous, Peter in the later scenes.

Unfortunately, Ian Stenlake, either through nerves or some other experience, lost me in his his first, long establishing speech. I could not gather or follow what Mark was doing or saying except as general emotional gist.The work became better focused at the latter end of the play. While Helen Christinson, seemed relentlessly savage without any redeeming creative touches as Saskia to help us to care for her situation at all, and I found my sympathies moving more and more to the besieged husband, especially as played by a very empathetic Mr Clementson. Whether this was the force of the writing or the actor/directorial choices, I could not really discern. Too, I felt that Ms Christinson’s characterisation of the other woman/wife, Libby, was essentially the same woman, psychologically. Who to blame? The writer? The actor?

I sat in the SBW Stables and began to stew, again, over the opening play of this present Griffin Theatre season, THE UNSPOKEN WORD IS ‘JOE‘, and pondered why the heroine of that play was so similar in psychology to both the wives in CARESS/ACHE. Now, I am not a psychologist or a sociologist, but I, as a regular theatre goer, felt the anger and savagery of all three of these recent new creations in this new Australian writing, and found that the rage, relatively, unexplained by the writers – these women just were merciless in the pursuit of their needs. Narcissism? Cultural Revenge Rage? What? How to understand these women with empathy? This was true of my response to the written female lead, Nakkiah, in Nakkiah Lui’s KILL THE MESSENGER (soon will write up my response), at the Belvoir last month. (I note, Ms Lui, like Ms Miller, from a background of law, the precinct, historically, of the male psyche – is that a clue?)

What is going on? Is it just me? I have recently had the great pleasure of reading, for my book club, Mary McCarthy’s feminist novel, THE GROUP (1963), and was deeply moved by the insight into the psychology of the female. The sophistication, variety and empathy was rewardingly impressive. As a man I found it was country that I was glad to have discovered in such insightful, witty writing, crafted with such passionate control. True, as well, I am wrestling with the writing of Edward Albee (THE LADY FROM DUBQUE), Donald Margulies (TIME STANDS STILL), Lanford Wilson (5th of JULY), Wendy Wasserstein (THE HEIDI CHRONICLES), and find the women in those plays so rounded in their standpoints in their various texts, in contrast to these recent three Australian plays. They are: Rounded. Balanced. And explained in complex colourings.

I read, as well, an interesting article, by Elizabeth Farrelly, in Thursday’s Sydney Morning Herald (March 12, 2015): Time to redefine the feminist movement. Much of it jumped out at me and excited my ‘brain’. Late in her article she propositioned:

… what if constructedness is wrong, and gender is at least partly innate? What if men and women are fundamentally different, but not in the simple binary way this is usually meant? What if the differences can be descriptive without being prescriptive? It seems useful at this point, to speak not of male and female persons, but of male and female thinking. These are not just different, but opposite.

Male-type thinking is focused, solution-oriented, object-centred, externalising and atomistic. Female-type thinking is broad, discursive, empathetic, receptive, experiential and rational. …

What of these new fictional women in this contemporary Australian stage literature? They seemed in the action of the above Australian texts to be more in the male thinking domain proposed by Ms Farrelly. I’ll keep an eye on it and wonder more, I guess.

Mr Skuse has thrown much invention into this production and despite what I believe to be over statement in many areas he is able to keep most of the audience on board with the writing in this play. I am a fan and supporter of Mr Skuse’s work, and Suzie Miller, too, though I am less familiar with her, and so I feel a little touchy about my response to this performance – although I have read other articles that were also a little underwhelmed. When faced with this dilemma this week past it was a comfort to read in an essay by Stanley Weintraub on the work of George Bernard Shaw, edited by Michael Holroyd:

Shaw was never to be satisfied, as literary critic, art critic, music critic or theatre critic, with the work of an artist who was performing at less than his potential. As he put it in a music column in 1890:

… A criticism written without personal feeling is not worth reading. It is the capacity for making good or bad art a personal matter that makes a man a critic. The artist who accounts for disparagement by alleging personal animosity on my part is quite right: when people do less than their best, and do that less at once badly and self-complacently, I hate them, loathe them, detest them, long to tear them limb from limb. …

There is, of course, some hyperbole from Mr Shaw there, and I embrace it cautiously, publicly, with a keen sense of ‘humour’. I hope you all do too.

See CARESS/ACHE for yourself and debate.


  1. Weintraub, S. 1979, In the Picture Galleries in THE GENIUS OF SHAW ed. Michael Holroyd, Holt, Reinhart and Winston, Austin, Texas.
  2. Farrelly, E. 2015, Time to Redefine the Feminist Movement, in The Sydney Morning Herald – Thursday, 12th March.