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REVIEW: Music | Fairfax Studio, Melbourne

Music is one of Melbourne Theatre Company’s more tuneful endeavours this year. Playwright Barry Oakley is welcomed back to the stage with warm applause.

Robert Menzies, Janet Andrewartha and Richard Piper in Music | Fairfax Studio (Pic: Jeff Busby)

Music breaks the silence in Barry Oakley’s career. It’s been 32 years since a major company programmed one of his plays. Not that he’s been quiet; a decade-long stint as literary editor at The Australian, a novel and a memoir since 1980. But much has been made of his return from so-called obscurity to the Melbourne Theatre Company stage.

Retired literature teacher Jack (Richard Piper) has an inoperable brain tumour and six weeks to live. His wife, music teacher and concert pianist Margie (Janet Andrewartha), has secrets, and six weeks to get them off her chest. Jack’s brother Peter (Robert Menzies), a priest, turns up to unload secrets of his own. In an early scene, Jack’s doctor Max (Paul English) and Margie are sparring. “Don’t talk to me about repressed emotion — what else do you do with it?” he quips. The rest of the play unfolds around this question. How do you give words to the things you thought you’d never have to say, and what do you do when the truth is the only choice left?

All the performances are stellar. Piper is remarkable as the rambunctious, brilliant Jack, balancing grace and ruggedness like spinning plates. English’s turn as tightly-wound Max is fascinating to watch; he makes what could have been a one-note role something nuanced and nimble. MTC stalwart Menzies is entirely on-form as distant, disconnected Peter. Andrewartha has a firm grip on a role a lesser actor might have reduced to histrionics.

After a slightly rocky opening, director Adrian Fennessy offers his cast safe harbour. The set by Marg Howell (who also costumed the show) is inspired, a behemoth of blonde wood curved towards the ceiling like a wave, teaming perfectly with Lisa Mibus’ intuitive and understated lighting.

Oakley’s text is the real star. There’s something remarkable here, something hard to define. Music could have played out differently; an airless museum piece, some kind of frozen-in-time exercise in worship of a forgotten idol. Or worse, a clutching, desperate attempt at relevance à la David Williamson’s Don Parties On. It is neither. Oakley’s dialogue is elegant, his characters sharply drawn and deftly shaded, his narrative grip firm and constant. This isn’t a flashy piece of theatre — there are no Mamet-ian speeches, no Marber-esque monologues, no Reza-like causeways of complication. It’s as though Oakley’s held onto some forgotten secret too many contemporary theatremakers have never been privy to. There’s magic here, and it’s the magic of simplicity.

His absence from the theatre hasn’t dulled his instincts even slightly. His timing — comic or otherwise — is masterful (he may be the only person to have won a laugh from Les Murray’s poetry). It’s the things Oakley’s characters don’t say that lead you to realise you’re in the hands of a master dramatist. When, towards the end of the play, Jack quotes Thomas Carlyle — “silence is as deep as eternity, speech as shallow as time” — it might well have been self-praise.

The off-stage tragedy here is Oakley’s return — not to form, but to this particular form — comes so late. At 81, this could be the last major work we see from him. Music feels like a swan song.

Happily, it’s pitch-perfect.

The details: Music plays the Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre until December 22. Tickets on the company website.

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