Monday, June 16, 2008

The Great

THE GREAT by Tony McNamara at The Wharf Theatre for The Sydney Theatre Company.

This is the seventh play of Tony McNamara that the Sydney Theatre Company has produced. It is a committed relationship.

“So why a play about Catherine the Great? Injustice would be the main reason. Catherine the Great was in fact, really great, and yet she is remembered as ‘that Russian Queen who did it with a horse.’” Mr McNamara in his program notes tells us that was not true. He goes on to assure us that he is a writer and he “likes to make things up” and he wanted a story “that embodies the spirit of the person rather than the literal truth of her reign”. I really enjoyed this play. I didn’t much like the direction but I think it is a good play.

Firstly the play: It IS very witty. The text is dense with cleverness and verbal surprises. Plot wise it is a little slow internally in terms of forward action, sometimes lollygagging about with cleverness instead of getting on with it and at two hours fifty minutes (with interval) probably could stand some cutting or re-writes.

A Clearer sense of character and scene objectives with some suspense, which could be achieved with some delicate pruning, could keep the audience breathless with attention instead of resting until the scene ends, (we had often got to the end of the scene long before the writer.)

One of the characters somewhere in the second Act talks about the difference between “salacious” and “substance” and I reckon that there is too much salacious usage of vulgar slang. Ten or twenty less “fucks”, “cocks”, ”sucks”, “cunt” even “ arsehole”, substituted with a more substantial vocabulary wouldn’t reduce the trendy modernity of the language which Mr McNamara seems to be striving for in his effort to write a “contemporary comedy” in an historical period. For the most part it fails to work as shock tactics and comes off as rather silly puerile juvenile jinks and doesn’t sit at all well alongside the great body of the rest of a mightily sophisticated use of language.

This play besides been witty and clever also has some serious (if not necessarily new) observation about the wielding of Power by Great People for the betterment of mankind and the personal sacrifices that Great Ones make to maintain their vision unswervingly. In Catherine’s case, in this play, the sacrifice of her own true love, Hermes. (Hello, Queen Elizabeth 1) Why, then, does this play feel like a soufflĂ© rather than a more substantial human drama?

I would lay the blame at the Director’s feet. Mr Peter Evans has failed to chart the growing human dilemma of the young Catherine in Act one, in her pursuit to create a great Russia which results in the necessary sacrifice of Hermes, and so when the character of Val turns up in the second act and haunts the older Catherine with the loss and guilt, it has no real impact. The comedy has been the focus of the Direction and the spine of the play relatively neglected. Like Christopher Hampton’s LES LIASONS DANGEREUSES, I believe THE GREAT has both serious comedy and real dramatic intent and opportunity.

But even with the comedy, the care of the Director in focusing the actors into being more technically adept in the delivery of this very heightened text is noticeably absent. There is a real Stoppardian need for “clarity of utterance” with this writing and it has not been given enough attention to succeed. The actors need to live in the particulars of the thought processes of the lines of the text and often those processes are swamped with generalized emotional indulgences that blur the clever and athletic acrobatics of Mr McNamara and the audience is robbed of the full potential of the comic dexterity of the writing. The playing of the actors becomes flabby with unnecessary emotional content at the expense of the rigour of the cool technique of thoughts with sharply thought charged particulars.

The actors of course must bear some of the responsibility for this as well. The line between good and great is not too far distant from each other but to achieve it, it requires much hard work in both preparation and performance. I will not dwell too much on what I personally feel about these actor’s vowel sounds that flatten the muscularity of most of the verbal energy in the writer’s exciting use of language, but unless the words, too, have accurate consonant finish they lack even more finesse and impact.

Robin McLeavy as the Younger Catherine gives a wonderfully intelligent and felt journey but lacks sharpness of thought choice and clear storytelling decisions. Emotional states are at the forefront of the work. It meanders through the Russian Court like a bewildered Alice in Wonderland rather than a highly intelligent and ruthlessly ambitious leader of a Nation. Her Natalie in the second act is just a badly behaved young Miss. Toby Schmitz as both Peter in the first act and Didi in the second was having a very off afternoon at the matinee I attended. Neither the verbal or character work showed much depth. It certainly misfired in the comedy department and seemed to be very superficially motivated. Ben Geurens playing Hermes in the first act seems to be more comfortable there than he is as Val in the second act. He seems to be unhappily cast and relatively uneasy in action. Alan Dukes is inventive but over strives in the physical comedy. Nicholas Bell seems to lack real charisma to pull off the older Orlov. While, Mandy McElhinney has the adept hand for the dry witted double she plays, Marial and Angeline, Matthew Moore struggles with the vocal execution of his work. The sound is too broadly Australian to be useful. He is best in the emotional conflict scenes. Liz Alexander as the Older Catherine begins well with commanding presence, and initially, a “clarity of utterance” vocally. But the acting choices tend to become histrionically melodramatic. Poses are struck and emotional vocal theatrics are used for affect. There does not seem to be any sense of the history of the characters past life - a life force that is evolving as the events unravel. Rather each scene is played for itself. It is self affecting and affected, not truly experienced, undermining the opportunities that the writer has given her and ultimately leaving the audience unmoved. Truth is substituted with hollow theatrics. It is, oddly, old fashioned acting.

Where was the Director’s attention? As it was a new play, was it on the dramaturgy and not on the production? (I note that no Dramaturge is listed in the credits, surely a prerequisite for a new work.) Certainly his actors could have used that third eye more rigorously to help guide them.

The Design, Setting and Costumes and Lighting (Fiona Crombie, Tess Schofield and Damien Cooper) have initial impact but along with the Alan John score they get repetitive and boring as we whirl around on the revolve for another scene change.
(It is also tedious and irksome to have a scene ending with a commanding figure who we believe to be THE CZAR of RUSSIA having to then pick up his royal chair as if he were a Serf (or stage hand!) (What, we have no funds for a backstage crew at The STC?)

Coincidently, the most thrilling theatrical experiences I have had in the past few years were both Russian. At recent Sydney Festival events I saw one year a TWELFTH NIGHT, and on another UNCLE VANYA. Listed in the TWELFTH NIGHT program were several Voice Coaches and three Movement Coaches. The VANYA company had a similar support. This Sydney Theatre Company Production has no Voice Coach credited and only a Dance and Fight coach. Is it here that the work of very talented people come unstuck? That there is not enough resources to provide necessary support? Both a Voice Coach and a Movement / Body Coach could have been felicitous.

I believe that this is essentially a well written play and deserves attention.

However, I feel that on the benchmarks of my long theatre going experiences, that this Production is only a respectable Provincial Company’s achievement. See for yourself.

Wharf 1 now playing, until 13 July
Approximate Running Time: 3 hours, including interval
Bookings: (02) 9250 1777 or
online through STC

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