Power game variations

Keith Gallasch: Endgame, Boys Will Be Boys, Grounded

Tom Budge, Hugo Weaving in Sydney Theatre Company’s Endgame

Tom Budge, Hugo Weaving in Sydney Theatre Company’s Endgame

Tom Budge, Hugo Weaving in Sydney Theatre Company’s Endgame

On the Sydney Theatre stage is a huge black box framing the curved interior wall of a lighthouse which towers vertiginously, a small high window either side, no stairs, a door centre, a clock and fine spiderweb-like threads misting the bricks before evaporating. Here, in this ominously vertical edifice, a power struggle will play out between servant and master in a cruel habitual game.

STC, Endgame

In Beckett—novel, play, poem or letter—rhythm is elemental: line, legato, lilt, cadence and pulse. We readers ‘sing’ him in our heads; actors give him voice, no more tellingly than in the dialogues of Waiting for Godot and Endgame, where discrete voices must function rhythmically as one. The power play of co-dependency that is fundamental to Endgame demands it.

By the climax of Endgame pitiless dominance and hostile servitude have played out to breaking point—Hamm faces death, Clov might leave—is a hint of life, a boy, glimpsed in the wasted world outside enough to propel him? In this production, directed by Andrew Upton, there’s a game of a kind, but a matching of forces? Hamm’s relentless conniving (veiled in charm and the apparent honesty of personal revelation) and Clov’s decreasingly passive resistance (increasingly uncooperative, not to be baited, refusing Hamm’s intimations of affection), these need to be equally weighted—good games have discernible rhythm.

Hugo Weaving’s realisation of the blind, wheelchair bound Hamm is in the tradition of at least two great Hamms, Patrick Magee and Michael Gambon, in appearance even and in realising the character’s domineering, ironic gravitas. The interpretation is Weaving’s own, lyrical (his lines aptly not as ‘sung’ as in his Macbeth in 2014) and ranging greatly through eruptions of raw anger and senseless callousness to moments of pathos (immediately undercut), near insight and, finally, a deeply affecting if self-regarding stoicism. Hamm amuses himself with his ‘artistry’, lightly supplementing the play’s otherwise bitterly caustic humour right to the very end: “You cried for night, it falls: now cry in darkness. [Pause] Nicely put, that.” Weaving captures all of this anew.

Tom Budge doesn’t simply have Clov’s “stiff, staggering walk,” he’s bent sharply forward at the waist, knees lowered, appearing more seriously incapacitated, although strong enough to wield a tall ladder with which to climb to the two high windows to view that world outside for Hamm. Much business ensues including a protracted opening gambit as he goes mechanically, if falteringly, about his household business. His demeanour, costuming and movement are clown-like. It’s an uneasy fit with Weaving’s Hamm. The difference is amplified by a rhythmic disconnect: Hamm and Clov are emotionally out of sync but they need to pulse together to play their appalling tit-for-tat game. Budge’s responses are frequently too quick or poorly paced; nor are they vocally resonant. Clov too needs gravitas, real and not ironic, not just resistance or seeming bewilderment, otherwise his critical late lines carry none of the weight of his revelation that he’s been trapped in a closed world: “I say to myself that the earth is extinguished, though I never saw it lit.’’

Vocally Bruce Spence and Sarah Pierce are well cast as Nagg and Nell, Hamm’s legless parents kept in large garbage bins and fed from diminishing food supplies. It’s weird enough that they live in bins, but having them made-up as if in very advanced states of decay is again clownish and pre-empts our grasping of their sorry state—momentarily funny, affectionate and finally hopeless.

This Endgame was arrhythmic, an unequal match—a casting and conceptual fault—and, really, no game at all. Nonetheless, I’ll long be haunted by Weaving’s appallingly magisterial, doomed Hamm. A friend who saw both the STC and MTC productions (the latter with Colin Friels as Hamm and Luke Mullins as Clov) concurred, saying that the reverse was true in Melbourne, Mullins’ Clov embodying Beckett’s rhythms and spirit.

Sophia Roberts, Danielle Cormack, Sydney Theatre Company, Boys Will Be Boys

Sophia Roberts, Danielle Cormack, Sydney Theatre Company, Boys Will Be Boys

Sophia Roberts, Danielle Cormack, Sydney Theatre Company, Boys Will Be Boys

STC, Boys will be Boys

Thesis: if boys will be boys, will girls be boys in the corporate workplace? Australian playwright Melissa Bubnic’s Boys will be Boys is an engaging, strongly performed melodrama in the All About Eve vein (young actress usurps her elder supporter; film, 1950) set here in the contemporary finance trading world with its sexism, nepotism, crude careerism and corruption. Despite growing evidence that women bring balance and fairness to the workplace, including the corporate sector, Bubnic runs with the cliché of conversion of girl to boy with verve if not revelation.

Astrid (Danielle Cormack) is a middle-aged currency trader who has achieved much on her own terms. A loner, always playing to win, she grudgingly mentors young trader Priya (Sophia Roberts) who simply wants to make money. She simultaneously turns to a prostitute, Isabelle (Meredith Penman), who appears to be equally worldly, cynical and droll (“my father died before he could interfere with me”) for sex and companionship. Clearly Astrid is at some kind of turning point, but not enough to make a serious emotional commitment to Isabelle (whom she ‘passes on’ to her boss) or to stand by Priya when she is raped by a fellow employee (son of a wealthy client of the business) and a video of the assault handed around the office by staff. Priya, threatening to go to the police, secures Astrid’s accounts for herself along with the sacking of the offenders. McCormack vividly portrays Astrid’s loneliness (at home with a martini, Chinese takeaway and singing the blues), cut and thrust communication, anxieties and fatal rigidity. We are initially invited to identify with her, her humour, her pragmatism, her willingness to take on two new relationships, but Bubnic puts Astrid’s self-awareness and our empathy to the test. She cannot account for herself, declaring early on that she is what she is—there was no childhood trauma, no cause and effect. Bubnic implicitly asks what shaped Astrid—nature or corporate nurture?

All roles, male and female in Boys will be Boys, are performed by women—including Tina Bursill as a chillingly amiable, observant and thoroughly manipulative male CEO—but it’s hard to see why, other than heavily underlining the girls will be boys thesis. Bubnic’s 2013 play, Beached, about an enormously fat adolescent, the mother who surreptitiously fattens him—to bind him to her—and the female journalist who goes to pieces while discovering the truth also focused relentlessly on female failure, if much less convincingly and more didactically than in her new play. Boys will be Boys, with its songs, cabaret and dance scenes hovers between satire and intense drama, leaning toward the one-dimensional—there is no otherness, no counterpoint to Astrid’s descent, her aloneness makes her too easy a target. A tougher take on female ambition might have been tested not a loner but a woman with friends, a partner, interests. The Astrid we meet appears already damaged, ideal corporate material.

Red Stitch, Grounded

Melbourne’s Red Stitch made a welcome visit to Sydney with US playwright George Brant’s Grounded (see John Bailey’s review, RT122, p46) meticulously designed and directed and graced with a remarkable solo performance from Kate Cole whose highly nuanced delivery embraced and then shocked us. As in Boys will be Boys, Cole’s The Pilot is a woman in a man’s world, a top gun fighter pilot. After having a child she is assigned a role as a drone operator, a role she learns to embrace at the expense of her family (a unit she is already only provisionally committed to). If Astrid in Boys will be Boys altogether loses what sense of morality she has in a morally lax corporate world, equally The Pilot’s closed military world and drone operations guarantee not just moral failure but trauma and psychosis—her moment of insight (that she is killing a child like her own) is part of a breakdown that will not in the end liberate her because, like Astrid, she has no social or intellectual framework to make sense of it. Is the appeal of Grounded and Boys will be Boys not that they radically demonstrate how male work culture transforms women into non-women (non-lovers and non-mothers or bad mothers), or that they implicitly suggest women can neither entirely adopt male roles nor change the culture?

Sydney Theatre Company, Endgame, writer Samuel Beckett, director Andrew Upton, set & lighting Nick Schlieper, costumes Renee Mulder, Sydney Theatre, 7 April-9 May; STC, Boys will be Boys, writer Melissa Bubnic, director Paige Rattray, Wharf 2, 18 April-16 May; Red Stitch, writer George Brant, director Kirsten von Bibra, Seymour Centre, Sydney 1-16 May

RealTime issue #127 June-July 2015 pg. 44

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

11 June 2015