REVIEW: The Gift | Sumner Theatre, Melbourne
This is what Tony Abbott was talking about: class warfare. Pitting the haves (wealth/happiness/cultivation/freedom) and the nots against each other. Familiar ground for generations of dramatists.
At least for a while. Somewhere near the middle of the second act Joanna Murray-Smith’s new play sharply deviates like the political debate never will. What begins as a David Williamson-esque blunt social satire becomes something much darker and much more penetrating. Like Yasmina Reza’s God Of Carnage: social order breaks down, manners are dispensed with and characters say, for better or worse, what they really mean — a guilty fantasy of the highest order.
The Williamson tone seems uncanny and no doubt comforting to some subscribers; obvious comparisons can be drawn with his Melbourne/Brisbane Theatre Company co-production, the insufferably self-indulgent Noosa-set farce Let The Sunshine, seen last year. There’s palm trees and a beachside setting, two couples from opposite sides of the tracks, debating whether the world has moved too fast or not fast enough.
But Murray-Smith still has things to say. On art and our own palettes; the courage required and the consequences that come from painting outside the lines. Martin (Matt Dyktynski), an idealistically young artist like his writer wife Chloe (Elizabeth Debicki), says really appreciating art is about “suspending doubt”. Appreciating life, too, as it turns out. They meet self-made business mini-mogul Ed (Richard Piper) and fiercely faithful wife Sadie (Heather Bolton), immodestly sheltered in near-retirement, at a holiday resort. They’re drawn to each other’s differences and an unlikely friendship develops over drunken conversations about doctrine.
Which is all pleasant enough; there’s something a little fresh about the generational battle, the characters defy (just) the cliché and there’s some real spikiness about the dialogue. But it’s the twist — ingenuously crafted and, hopefully, jealously guarded by those who’ve seen it — that transforms The Gift into something a little precious. And that’s about all we’ll say about that.
Veteran Piper wrestles with Ed to drag up the emotions and perspective his character never thought he had; it’s a terrific performance that really explodes in the second act. Bolton, who backs up as the standout in Malthouse Theatre’s recent Porn/Cake, gives Sadie a painted smile and ever-widening eyes to the possibilities of life. Of the younger set, Dyktynski doesn’t have to work particularly hard as Martin, and mainstage debutant Debicki doesn’t bring tremendous depth to Chloe.
But the ensemble, under Brit director Maria Aitken, is finely tuned. The spry dialogue flows freely, the jokes are punched and earned, and as the tale grows more extraordinary the emotional resonance becomes more devastatingly ordinary.
That’s Murray-Smith’s real achievement here: rationality. The questions she poses are familiar, even if nobody is brave enough to utter them aloud. The ground is as fertile as anything else she’s sown.
That it’s essentially perennial, too, her work, means the anticipation around a new play is perhaps unfairly muted. Her irresistible Songs For Nobodies was still playing in January; another original work, A Hotel, Evening, premieres at the independent Red Stitch playbox in November; Ninety, which began at MTC a few years back, is currently on stage in Perth; and the Sydney Theatre Company will usher her in from the cold with a new work next year. There have been, over the course of a stellar career, more hits than misses.
She is, unquestionably, a ribbon-wrapped present to public theatre: stimulating ticket sales and, still, minds. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
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