Wednesday, September 8, 2010


GRIFFIN THEATRE COMPANY presents the World Premier of QUACK by Ian Wilding at the SBW Stables Theatre, Sydney.

QUACK. This is not quack as "to utter a cry of a duck or some similar sound" as I kept thinking before I saw the show, but rather, quack as in "an ignorant or fraudulent pretender to medical skill"- ahhhh!

We have Doctor Littlewood (Chris Haywood) who has been practising the transplanting of animal glands into humans, "a very quintessence of remedies" to gain a sexual edge for the recipients. The town boss, local miner baron and entrepreneur and bully, Mr Gunner (Jeanette Cronin), desperately wants this edge to marry, for he wants a son. They decide that a human donor is necessary. They find a possible donor in "The Canary at the mine", young Rodney (Aimee Horne) who has turned up in the surgery to have a wound, a savage bite doctored and has what they both need: two good balls!!! (He has something else as well, that bite is not a good augur!!!).

Of late, there has arrived in town, a Doctor Waterman (Charlie Garber), who in a mere three days has made a reputation for modern ideas and practice that have created cures among some of the population in the town, and who is vigilantly determined to take the town and Doctor Littlewood into the world of new medicine- clean living and diet, lots of water, been in the forefront of his advisement. Zounds, how modern!

Later we find him at a house call. Nancy (Jeanette Cronin) has an indentured 'girl', Fanny (Aimee Horne), who is trying to begin a new life as a writer, elsewhere. Nancy has marriage plans for her and has called the new Doctor to prescribe to subdue the young girl's temperament. Waterman is struck by the qualities that Fanny exudes and persuades her to stay by his side and change the world, create a wonderful future (and maybe something else as well(?) in the town. Fateful persuasion.

The timing of this mission is amiss for unfortunately, outside, an epidemic has exploded and is rampaging through the town. This puzzling epidemic, we, contemporary audience, recognise and diagnose swiftly the symptoms, as those of an infection caused by the passing on, of... the Zombie germ!!!!! The town has become a Zombie town.

Chaos ensues and our characters find themselves besieged, surrounded by the raging populace. News of the death of Gunner and Rodney arrive, the contaminated Littlewood disintegrates spectacularly in front of us, Nancy is grabbed and kidnapped by the 'hostiles', Fanny dies heroically, killed by a rescue party despite her Ned Kelly armour, and only Waterman survives. He prays: "Wet but not drowned. Stabbed but not murdered. Never quite all I was. Oh mother - be proud of me yet. Let there be a sign." A sign appears dramatically, but nervously I thought "Be careful for what you wish for Doctor Waterman" (Tonight as I write, a new government has been formed - oh ominous!).

This is no piece of quackery that Mr Wilding has written or Mr Mead has directed. It is a farce. A verbal and physical farce. One that with attentive concentration can be sometimes sublimely amusing. When was I last dazzled, thus? Maybe with the verbal and visual tomfoolery of Joe Orton and WHAT THE BUTLER SAW. The text is delightfully dense with wit of both the stupid and clever type. The circumlocution of the lubricious loquacity of the characters is great fun to wrestle with. The visual fun and putridness is viscerally squirmy to indulge in - especially if you are in the front row on the right - be warned or (thrilled) and is audacious in its execution.

But do not think that the night is just a mindless fun night of zombie gluttony. The text is littered with political satire and razor sharp observations that keep you bristling with keenness to remember them (The text sells in the foyer as the program - worth having).

In the program notes Mr Wilding observes that QUACK is the first play he has written "while living under a Labour government… So how is a political play under the so-called left different to the others? Well in this instance, it means less anger and more disappointment… (and) I'm beginning to believe politics really is different now… I feel we are living in a time when what we do individually is so much more important than anything that can be achieved in the execution of a political instrument. QUACK then is less a political instrument and more an exploration of disappointment, power struggles, evolution and a call to arms. And the big question - is it familiarity that breeds contempt or are we our own worst enemies - whoever is in charge?" (Interesting stuff, huh? On the momentous 7th of September, 2010, Australia?).

That the last project that the director Chris Mead gave us was THE MODERN INTERNATIONAL DEAD by Damian Millar ought to alert you to the fact that this production has a mind that is as sharp and socially responsible as any you may find working in this field at present. So, despite the zombie trappings, I would rather say, because of the trappings, approach this delight with all your senses alert for acerbic commentary on our lives and times at the core of this silliness. A prescription that has a sweet surface to a bitter pill of sore core content. From the program: "And finally QUACK is a zombie play, a play for our times - all of us sometimes feel that we are alone battling soulless, sleepwalking usurpers. and like all good zombie stories it's about the moment when religion, ethics, philosophy and medicine are no longer of any use fighting the scorching reality of human hubris, can't stop the ineluctable dynamism of our collective greed and ignorance." One does feel encouraged about contemporary playwriting in Australia, when you note that Chris Mead is Artistic Director of Play Writing Australia, at present.

The antecedents for the trappings of this political work can be seen from the recent popular culture cults of other mediums. From the deliriously verbal ridiculousness of Rowan Atkins' BLACKADDER (also Richard Curtis and Ben Elton), to the droll fantasies of a gleaming art direction drama of DEADWOOD, with references to the latest Zombie cultishness (SHAUN OF THE DEAD). The characters names hark back to similar usage in the Restoration Comedies of Society - antecedents of a brilliant heritage.

Charlie Garber has at last found a role that stretches his intelligence, wit, skills and talent in comic satire, and a director who has harnessed his proclivities, sometimes for excess, within the container of a brilliantly executed character. And Chris Haywood has the right sensitivities with his inspiring avuncularities in his role as the spirit pickled doctor of the old school, set up to spar with the new man in town for the right to practice, only to find himself gradually exploded.

Jeanette Cronin in a role double duty and sex exchange is marvellously daring in her outrageousness. The audacity of the actors choices are often the wellspring for the laughter although the textual deftness is intelligently and mostly impeccably landed as well.

But the real pleasure of the night in an extremely rich night of comic acting, under the watchful guidance of Mr Mead, is that of Aimee Horne, doubling as the heroine Fanny and the poor dupe Rodney. From her gentle entrance and the witty and moving rendition of the Creedence Clearwater Revival BAD MOON RISING to set up and warn us of the stylistic hi-jinx about to follow (she similarly croons two other superb tunes - to give us pause for breath in the mayhem and pointers to the coming events), to her powerful still centre and intelligence as Fanny, the aspiring short story artist facing the Joan of Arc turbulences of her country and the shy, stupid but affecting ball giver Rodney, Ms Horne announces her talent and gifts. Those of us who know her from her student days at drama school have been waiting patiently for the opportunity to arrive to reveal this presence to the rest of Australia and here it gloriously is. If you spotted her in LIKE A FISHBONE last month at the STC Wharf you may, too, have sensed that something special is here. It was in this theatre, many years ago now, Sydney had the talent of Cate Blanchett revealed to us in KAFKA'S DANCES. This may be another such time of prescient revelation.

The design elements of this production are also something to wonder at. The Set design by William Bobbie Stewart is dazzlingly comforting - beautiful in it's vaudeville nostalgia. That it sits in this space at the Stables brought back welcome memories of the older skylarking of the Old Nimrod days under the raffish aesthetics of John Bell and Larry Eastwood, and heralded an appetite for the events promised, this night, with the varnished wooden floor boards and props, red ruched curtain, and naive paint rendered backdrops of an era fondly resurrected for our delectation. That Mr Stewart also designed these period costumes with all of the attendant calculations of multiple quick changes and the gross tricks of a zombie experience is amazing. And I mean amazing in the Elizabethan or was that Victorian sense? The logistics would have been a nightmare let alone the pleasing visual sensibilities that are achieved.

Lighting by Bernie Tan, beautiful and useful as usual. Both nostalgic and contemporary art directed as per the spoof of the stylisitc steals. The Sound Design and Composition, all complex, atmospheric and witty by David Heinreich.

All in all, I feel that I have been raving. I do encourage you to see this.

On the night I saw the show, I did feel that the production began to run out of puff, and focus in the last twenty minutes or so (Scene 15 on wards). How the company managed to meet all of these challenges in usual rehearsal time is mind disturbing and maybe the ambition of it all needs, needed, more time. I felt that two more actors (ease up the women's burdens - of course, not as much fun perhaps for the actors, but, maybe, more clarity for the audience) would have removed some of the pressure. The climactic moments felt rushed and uncertain - the zombie grave moment an anti-climax that left the audience in a bewildered state of "what was that?”.

BANG, WINTER'S DISCONTENT and now QUACK, not a bad run of home grown Australian writing and production. Something to give prizes too. Maybe a living as well…?

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