REVIEW: Gwen In Purgatory | Belvoir Street Theatre, Sydney
A co-production with La Boite, Gwen In Purgatory was written, especially, for Company B by Tommy Murphy. Directed, happily and almost inevitably, by Sydney creative institution Neil Armfield, it stars Nathaniel Dean, a much more expansive Grant Dodwell, Sue Ingleton, Melissa Jaffer and Pacharo Mzembe.
Gwen is the story, I suspect, of every family. Or is it just mine? It’s chilling. Funny, very funny, in the worst possible way, in that the behaviours, personalities and situations are likely to jog memories you’d hope were dead and buried.
‘Stubborn’ and ‘fiercely independent’ is how 90-year-old matriarch (Jaffer) Gwen’s neurotic daughter Peggy (Ingleton) describes her. And she’s right. Good on her, I say. Gwen’s offspring have managed to convince her to move out of her old home and into a brand new place, in Queanbeyan. The play opens at this point, with Gwen’s armchair surrounded by boxes. The phone is on the counter and begins to ring. Gwen slowly lifts herself out of her chair and hobbles over to it, but it stops ringing just as she’s about to pickup. Predictably, she returns to her chair, at which point the phone rings again. Yes, predictably, but it still, somehow, manages to tickle the funny bone; probably thanks to the resonant familiarity and reality of the situation.
Despite her physical deterioration, Gwen is still as sharp as a tack, much to the chagrin of her family, who have their own problems and agenda. Not that Gwen is ripe for beatification. She can be quite cruel, cutting and seemingly oblivious to such. She’s not above denial, either. Then again, who is?
Gwen has been alarmed by the threatening appearance of the bloke whose ute she clipped on the way out of the driveway, but grandson Daniel (Dean) has managed to subdue the bloke’s outrage. We learn Daniel’s is having trouble with Belle, his partner, who’s taken off to Forbes, to be with her family, who she can’t stand. Caught in the middle is their daughter, on whom Daniel clearly dotes. It’s also revealed he once tried to rob a local service-station, but the owner saw through his mask (‘c’mon, Daniel! I know your grandfather’). Later, the reluctant victim offered Daniel a job. It might be an unlikely and therefore comical scenario, but life is so often stranger than fiction.
Daniel’s biological mother is long since gone and exists only in absentia. Daniel was taken in by his aunt, the neurotic Peggy, who’s martyred herself to this and other family responsibilities. While she now deeply resents it, try as she might, she still can’t quite say no. Her pushy brother (Dodwell), Daniel’s uncle, has taken the reins and is calling the shots. It’s he who has pushed to move Gwen to the edge of Queanbeyan, making her a lonely fringe-dweller, living in a kind of purgatory, as per the title. Mind you, all these people are living in their own private Idahos.
The unwitting witness to this suite of family tensions is Father Ezekiel (Mzembe), the well-meaning but somewhat culturally maladjusted priest, fresh from Lagos. One of the pithiest lines in the play comes when Peggy apologies for the scenes to which he’s been subjected: “Nothing has made me more homesick.” It is both ironic and earnest, but not at all sarcastic, coming from this character. It’s an apparently epiphanous moment for him.
The premise, in a sense, for all the action that swirls around her is the fact that Gwen is desperately seeking to play one last game of tennis on the rundown court at her old home. But it’s too late. Ground has already been broken by developers. She’s all dressed-up, in her white clobber and sunshade, with nowhere left to go. Game over. Soon, the final bell will toll.
The play is dense with dialogue, but none is superfluous. It all contributes to the narrative arc, as well as individual and familial characterisations, which couldn’t be more vivid. These are people written with such recognisability and authenticity, it’s scary. You’ll almost certainly feel like you know them. Probably all too well.
I can’t think of another playwright who’s a keener, more insightful observer of Australian suburban life, let alone one who can document it so redolently. Williamson is up there. Tunks has his strengths. But Murphy takes the cake. There’s nothing prententious, evasive, cryptic or abstract. There are no laboured metaphors, excesses or self-indulgences: everything on the page is for a purpose and advances the play. And who better than Armfield to lift it off the page and realise it on the stage? The writer’s own notes on the production make it easy to see how he’s so successful: the heart beats between the lines. He writes:
My original proposal was to write a play dealing, somehow, with memory. At the time I was reeling from the recent news that someone close to me would lose their memory. As sometimes happens, these real life circumstances were too raw so I let the play evolve in a new direction. The character suffering from memory loss was not granted his entrance beyond the first draft. I focussed my attention instead on the other figures that were beginning to populate my play. But a fascination with memory seems to have remained. Science and literature have long struggled to explain memory. Perhaps memory is like the computer I am typing on right now. As I type, I am tampering with the words. How do we account for memory as the reconstruction of life replete with the unreliability, subjectivity, editing, colouring and exaggerations? How do we describe recollection as a creative act? Memory is like writing a play.
After about a year of writing, something clicked in the story and I was surprised to discover much of the play is underpinned by disputed memories. Perhaps this is a likely conflict in a family, among people who may have opposing interpretations of their shared history and shared identity. The voices in this play stem from people I know and love but as soon as they found their way to the page they were characters bending according to dramatic impulses and artistic imperatives. Now they reach the stage, the characters are merely impressions of those inspiring people. A play is a rectified account of life. That said, I do know a beautiful woman who played her last game of tennis in her backyard court at age ninety. I’ve also encountered people fearful they’ll find themselves in a kind of purgatory, abandoned by family at the cruellest moment, the twilight of life. I have interviewed priests from developing nations, several from Nigeria who, like Father Ezekiel, have been brought to Australia to fill the gap left by dwindling recruits. They expressed feelings of isolation and regret for the individualism of Australia. They seemed homesick for a church that relishes greater influence over its community. To me these missionaries stand for the church’s resistance of bigger questions about its place in Australian society.
Gwen In Purgatory is a play for and about all of us. It is warm, funny, sad, tragic, poignant, moving and unsettling. Just like our lives. Life on the page, or stage, doesn’t get any better than this. This is the (very) real deal. Murphy makes it possible by writing it.
Armfield makes it actual, through his mercurial talent for finding just the right cast to hit exactly the right notes. In these actors, he couldn’t have done better. It would be almost utterly arbitrary to rank one above the other, but I will say that Nathaniel Dean has created a masterpiece: every movement and mannerism is believable and serves to communicate the fragile containment of his emotions. But it’s easy to feel sympathy and contempt for the other characters, too. Sometimes, perhaps, both at once.
Above all, Gwen In Purgatory manages to portray the beginning, middle and end that is, or will soon enough become, familiar to so many of us. It’s not happy. It’s not unhappy. It’s both. And neither. And a brilliantly incisive document of the quality, or lack of it, in and of our lives. And then some.
Curtain Call rating: A+
The details: Gwen In Purgatory plays the Belvoir Street Theatre until September 19. Tickets through the company website. The production travels to Brisbane for a season at La Boite’s Roundhouse Theatre between September 29 and October 4. Tickets through the La Boite box office.