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Photo by Brett Boardman

Packer and Sons

Belvoir Theatre Company presents, PACKER AND SONS by Tommy Murphy, at Belvoir Upstairs, Surrey Hills. 21st November - 5th January

PACKER AND SONS is a new Australian play by Tommy Murphy.

It is a play that focuses on the men of the Packer dynasty. Sir Frank, Kerry, Clyde and James. We meet Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch – another Australian power merchant family. And wheeler-dealer Jodie Rich – a failed power interloper.

No women appear in this two and a half hour saga – is it that their invisibility or silence is a tacit wink that they are consenting agents to the world about them? Silence is Consent?

On a bare stage, Design, Set and Costume, by Romaine Harper, supported peripherally with a fixed opaque glass passage across the long back wall, so that the moving figures behind look like blurring ‘ghosts’ reminiscent of the Harry Potter imagery that we know as The Death Eaters, with the wheeling on and off of location descriptive furniture and minimum properties (office, home,- outdoor and indoor – hospital, etc) supported with a drama impacted Light Design by Nick Schlieper, the play begins with a melodramatic lightening sharp white spot accompanied by an overheated orchestral score from Alan Johns that shockingly jolts us to an adrenaline witness of the polo field where Sir Frank (John Howard) lies flat on his back after a heart attack has de-horsed him as his sons Kerry (Josh McConville) and Clyde (Brandon McClelland) urge the panicked minions to get the ambulance and helicopter to bring rescue – technically Sir Frank was dead for 6 minutes but rose like the vampire/zombies in our dystopian popular fictions to continue his reign with added determination and concentration.

The movement and Direction of the play under the hand of Eamon Flack is dynamic in its energy effort and the elicited performances by the company of actors are impassioned and detailed realisations that keeps one alert and partly mesmerised. The casting trick of shifting Josh McConville from the young Kerry to the young James through a remarkable physical demonstration and his other bravura offers are startling in their accomplishment – here is a great actor, challenged by the role and rising to it with courage. Whilst the dominating focus that John Howard brings to both Frank and the older Kerry is multiplied-up by his physical size which is employed as a crushing weapon: ruthless bullies, both, used to have everybody, anybody to dance to his savage tune. To be loved by Dad is to be his tool/fool. His manipulative skills knew no boundaries.

The play focuses on the father and son relationships and through the well known incidents in the lives of these men Mr Murphy reveals the ugly toxic masculinity and the dominating patriarchal closed-fist that is wielded in the passionate pursuit of money and power through the generations of this archetypal Australian family. Without much relief of comedy or much warmth of human kindness, the revealed ugliness of PACKER AND SONS might go to explain the culture of this country that has begun to unwind in the teens of the twentieth-first century: it might begin to illuminate as to how the corporate world – our banks and institutions (churches) and our political party governments have felt it had permission to shift the ethical boundaries of our founding principles so long as they won the wealth and power race. (It goes certainly to explain the United States and its Trumpian rise to Power.) This is a play about power when utilised by men and its inevitable corrupting influence.

Another ‘theme’ of the functionaries in PACKER AND SONS has manifested itself in my consciousness as well: that the decay function of our biology which is nature limiting our life spans to a brief 60 or 70 odd years, cannot dim the manifest surge of our species to strive at all costs the passionate pursuit of Wealth and its brother product, Power. Decrepit Old Age” has no effect on the will-charged emanating Atomic/Nuclear menace that once seeded and owned grows and glows even as the corpse of our flesh and blood rots us.

The play, however, does not sustain its thrilling initial energy, and becomes bogged down in its middle section (ending Act one beginning of Act Two) with a deeply researched blow-by-blow account of the 0neTel crash led by James. Mr Murphy has a habit to bind himself too strictly to his research (e.g. Mark Colvin’s Kidney) – and he needs to be encouraged to give himself permission to take some poetic license with his facts to maintain a dramatic dimension trajectory. In truth it is the performance conviction by all that brings the play relatively into safe harbour: Brandon McClelland, John Gaden. Nick Bartlett, Anthony Harkill (and two young boys alternating night to night: Nate Sammutt, Bryson Wolfe).

One wonders whether we should now see the female view of this family and that time, with their strategies to participate in the hell’s kitchen of such malignant bearishness. The television series SUCCESSION, could be, arguably, about the International career of the Australian Murdoch family – and it works because there is poetic fictionalisations in their family, the Logan’s, political rivalries that allows dramatic opportunities in the ‘melodrama’ of great storytelling.

PACKER AND SONS is, still, a good night in the theatre, but not a great one. SUCCESSION and the Logan family is a great one.