Tuesday, March 17, 2015


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.


Anne said...

Mr Jackson,

If you can't engage with the voices of young women, young feminism, and young people - which this review clearly shows you are unwilling and inept to do - I'd suggest it is time to leave theatre criticism behind.

"How to understand these women with empathy?" I'd suggest by starting with the understanding that your way of viewing the world is not shared. Women's voices have been marginalised for too long, but now they're speaking and the world is listening - I suggest you start to listen, too.


Alison Croggon said...

What's gobsmacking about this review is the notion that women are somehow a species alien to the complexities of intellectual and emotional life. There is nothing about qualities like intelligence, anger or legal qualifications that are particular to men. Does possessing a penis really prescribe entire domains of thought? Perhaps the clue to "empathy" is regarding women as fully human, with as much diversity of intellectual and emotional capacity as the male of the species, and as much right to them. And yes, it is deeply embedded assumptions such as those in this review that lead to phenomena like feminine anger, which is actually very easy to explain.

Anonymous said...

Hi Kevin
I'm a young female and completely agree with your assessment of 'the unspoken word is Joe' and 'Caress/Ache' - particularly your comments around the female characters.It's not about not getting the female perspective or not wanting to - it's simply about expecting more.

Robert Miller said...

"I held my ground against the invitation to indulge my emotions."
Only one word for that: sad.

jane e said...

A few things:

Robert: I cried quite uncontrollably at the end of The Wild Duck - and still didn't like it. (Mostly due to the fact that I felt a strong manipulation by the creators of that piece to move the audience to tears. So I can empathise with trying to hold one's ground against these things.)

In regards to the female character thing: it's a pity that this review took the turn it did. One is quite able to critically examine a female character without falling into sexism and / or pigeonholing of an entire gender. I have seen The Unspoken Word is Joe and loved the characterisation for its ugly, warts-and-all honesty, which is often missing on our stages when it comes to female protagonists. And she was bloody hilarious. Completely befitting the subject, context, dramaturgy of the play as a whole. The one could not exist without the other.
I am unable to see Caress/Ache as I'm not in Sydney so I cannot comment. And there are certainly other quite positive reviews of this play. However, Ben Neutze also makes comment on the cliches of this piece in his Daily Review, including the couple broken by the affair:

"We've seen this attractive, white, middle-class, heterosexual couple break up in exactly the same way time and again on stage and screen. Except, usually, the characters have been coloured in some meaningful or distinct way, rather than the simplistic sketches Miller provides. She doesn't explore her topic with enough depth or intrigue to justify the inclusion of such a repetitive trope.."


I often sit in an audience head-in-hands over characters riddled with cliche, stereotype and repetitive trope - male and female, although the women always affect me more due to our under-representation, especially in the classics, male-penned. However, it means assessing them with the same criteria, not some Mars/Venus gender-pop-psychology.

(Note: That you could read all of Elizabeth Farrelly's op-ed in the SMH and take from it the idea of "innate gender" and not that rest of it, which outlines appalling behaviour of some male surgeons, could be an example of what's contributing to part of this "female anger" you're seeing on the stages?)

Sam Haft said...

Jane E- can you explain what you mean about women being 'under-represented in the classics'? It's certainly unfortunate that the plays were, indeed, penned almost exclusively by men, but surely Strindberg, Ibsen, Chekhov and Williams and Brecht, arguably the five greatest playwrights of their respective times were obsessed with the female protagonist.
I'm not contesting your opinion, I'm just curious to see if my judgement is clouded.

jane e said...

Hi Sam,
Firstly, I don't know if any man's 'obsession' with women has ended well in any context, not just playwriting, but I think I get your point. I also really don't want to get into an argument about classics Vs new plays. (I was actually alluding to contemporary plays when I wrote the above "head-in-hands in audience" moment.) But, here goes:

Of course. You're absolutely right; the five playwrights you mention are all men and they wrote (co-wrote? Brecht?) some great classic female protagonist roles. Agreed.
Here I would like to rephrase my use of "representation." It is of course, more than just mere representation. As noted, they are all male playwrights. (As are three of the four playwrights Mr Jackson cites above, as authors of "rounded" female roles.) It starts with their view of things - no matter how many other artists between their words and a production. Their view of the world, of the female characterisation. It all starts with them, as male playwright.
I went hunting for stats on this, (even though again, that's just representation) and my very brief search didn't uncover many, asides from the Shakespeare stats, in an article in The Guardian, about the UK: http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2012/dec/10/women-in-theatre-glass-ceiling. (However, it also has the percentages of female roles in a play, depending on whether or not the playwright is a woman (49%) or a man (37%). Though I'm not sure if the plays sourced were classic, contemporary, or both.)
We certainly do a lot of Shakespeare here. You don't need me adding to the universal shrine to his greatness: I get why. But we do a lot of it. And mostly the same ones. Over and over.
What do these women do, in these plays from the canon? What are they like? How much agency do they have? Who are they responding to, and how? Again and again, each time we reproduce them? Yes, older works can still hold currency; and have (often unfortunate) relevance. Likewise, contemporary plays can be limiting in their characterisation of women. But my reaction to the female characters in many a classic is usually one of frustration. Not at their existence as characters in the first place, but as a repetition of a time and mores past. No matter how much their predicament might still resonate now, they - the characters - don't change, and neither does their outcome.
Undoubtedly, Nora, Hedda, Blanche, etc, are creatively rewarding for an actor and audience alike, and I appreciate them as great roles in the theatre, but I want something new, different. So much of them, and their plight, is restricted by the period in which they were written.
I want to imagine bigger.