ALL PHOTOS BY LISA TOMASETTI
Fury, currently playing at the STC Wharf One is both an impressive achievement and an interesting slap across the face for me – or at least someone I used to be. On the former – the achievement, read more below. But let’s just set this up. As part of my journey as a reviewer, over many years now, I have probably spent as much time lying on the couch looking for answers from the ceiling, as I have spent on seeing shows or writing about them. I have built into me now a set of ‘foundations’ and ‘principles’ from which emerges my reading of any new production. It’s my own self-help guide constructed mostly out of trying to rectify mistakes. Near the top of the list: early on I realised that the call for objectivity from a critic was utter bunkum. The more realistic path, wherever possible, was to attempt to show your hand. Never to assume that one’s owns views are superior, but that in explaining how one came to these conclusions one might create some interesting reading.
This should mean that even a reader who disagrees with what you have to say can come away from your review stimulated by that experience. You may move some to a position closer to your own, or you may not. That is not the point. The point is that reviewing is a highly ‘subjective’ act. The question is not ‘what’ but ‘why’: why do we prefer one production-script-performance over another? It is in part a delusional exercise because one can never really know. For example: what is taste and its role in one’s critical tool kit? Or sensibility? Or what we had for dinner before the show? Hence the hours on the couch. In the very least we must attempt to reman alert, keep an eye out for our blind spots even though we will never come to know all of them.
Joanna Murray-Smith’s Fury takes me to the heart of one of my most frequently exposed built-in blind spots. From my earliest writing I have had little interest in the problems of the ‘well-off’. To the point where it took Mozart to convince me open my mind to the work of other art and artists supported by royal courts across Europe in that time. To this extent I fit into the generational mould of the parents in Murray-Smith’s Fury. Okay, I have not done quite as well as they have financially over the ensuing decades. But back in my university days I was similarly influenced by the view that ‘direct action’ was needed and possibly justifiable to bring down the ‘establishment’. It was a global movement, most intensely embodied in groups like Italy’s Red Brigade and Germany’s spin-off, the Baader-Meinhof group. It was the birth of modern ‘terrorism’: it drove the Black Panther movement in the USA and the IRA in Ireland. Direct action rarely went to such extremes in Australia (although there was the ‘Hilton Bombing’ in Sydney).
I think I baulked sat the idea of bystanders as ‘collateral damage. But I do remember sitting around a table of university comrades smoking marijuana ($30 an ounce back then) and supping red wine from a flagon, discussing who we might blow up if we were terrorists. My suggestion, a young woman of roughly our age, who reeked of privilege – otherwise sinless apart from being her father’s daughter. In 2013 she is now Australia’s richest woman/person (worth over 20 billion dollars – four times wealthier then her closest competitor Frank Lowy). How good was that for a pick, way back then, if you were out to shape the course of history. Or simply eliminate a creepy person from her position of influence in today’s Australia. On the up side, had I ‘enacted’, we may never have enjoyed the Dallas-like shenanigans that followed the employment (initially hired by Gina) of a Filipina maid named Rose (or the musical starring Paul Capsis that begs to be written by someone – one day I hope).
PS: to this day I say jokingly (perhaps not jokingly): ‘If I wasn’t a pacifist I would be a terrorist.’
Okay money can’t buy happiness in its entirety, but it can minimise a lot of the pain poorer people are born to suffer. Fury is a play about problems in a well-off family. I have become less strident with the years (which is common) and I’ve known for some time that the life of any type or class of person can rightly merit the attention of a playwright. And many rich people do a lot of good with their money. And I am sorry I had not yet come to that view in my early days as a reviewer in my 20s when I savaged so much presented in Richard Wherrett’s era as artistic director of the STC. That said, I may still come to the same evaluations now. Because it’s not that so many of these plays (by David Williamson and others) were about a well-off class people, but that the characters in these stories in the end were so often let off the hook. Infidelities to one side, the institution of marriage upheld, and the family returned to the dining table ready to break bread and enjoy one of father’s better wines from his cellar. As audience members we had been teased and mildly provoked. Acknowledging our imperfections, we drove home to our lives unchanged, our foibles more-or-less ‘endorsed’. Resolutions utterly at odds with the brutal endings being produced by the best filmmakers from Germany and France and Italy at the time: Schlondorff”s version of Heinrich Boll’s novel The Lost Honour of Katerina Bloom a favourite for me on the topic of the ‘down’ side of terrorism. The more recent Spanish film El Lobo, ‘The Wolf’, based on a true 1970s story also captures the gripping taste of the terror.
Joanna Murray does NOT let her family off the hook in Fury. She presents good lovely educated tasteful people – and they are all those things. But one can never presume seemingly good people have led entirely good lives. Her study does not lack compassion but nor does it wimp out.
I won’t go into the plot (it’s not for spoiling – with its artfully constructed narrative line). But let’s just say Mum and Dad are shocked to discover their perfectly brought-up son has done something wrong. Utterly, and seemingly inexplicably, at odds with everything the family believes in and, up until now, presumably these values have been absorbed by their son while growing up? The parents are not impressed and they let it be known. No matter how drunk, influenced by others, or just plain silly a mood he was in – there was no excuse. Emotionally the boy is shunned. Meanwhile the parents look elsewhere for others to blame.
Well then – as we find out. How about what Mum did when she was about the same age? When all that comes out, Dad comforts his wife. ‘They were different times.’ ‘That was part of the era.’ In the end this unfair protection racket put up against the sins of the son in favour off the mother’s fails to hold up. No walking away from the ending of Fury free and easy. There were loud painful gasps of what felt like self-identification in the withering closing scenes of the play. I certainly felt them in my stomach. This is a play worthy of high praise, not only for taking on the bourgeois mould and unpacking it. But to do so, it needed the skill of a surgeon. I gather director Andrew Upton did encourage Murray-Smith to trim off a little of the play’s flesh before opening. If so, it was a job well done because the passage of the play remains taut, and the bones that hold it together at a structural level are there for us to see. For playwriting craft, it is as close to Ibsen as I have encountered in a long time. In preparation for something I have to say at the end, let’s also remember director Andrew Upton might be new to directing, but his metier is playwriting; and and more often than not in the area of script doctoring – which to me includes his translations into English of, now, a good number of other language classics. I have not seen a lot of Joanna Murray-Smith’s work, and of that I have seen I was aware that I had to take into account my built-in prejudice against plays about the sufferings of the well off. That acknowledged, I still remained ‘iffy’ about some of her work. Quite clearly not this time. This is the world she knows, was brought up in – and it’s mostly best for writers stay as close to that as they can. But taking the bourgeois model, placing it there up on stage before us, and then exquisitely dismantling it, scene by scene, makes this not only a great play. But a breakthrough moment for Murray-Smith.
I could say a lot more about Fury, but I have already spent days in trying to get right the little that is here. I am presuming readers here on my site seek out other opinions as well. Please go elsewhere for more detail and likely different. So just a few other brief – not unimportant – acknowledgements. Andrew Upton does a fantastic job directing this play. Everyone knows I have got a bit sick of the recent fashion for multi-skilling. And as a writer and translater he did not have enough directing experience to pull off directing Bulgakov’e large-scale The White Guard, a play he had translated for the National in London, where in the hands of a more experienced director it was well received. Fury is a better choice. The cast is smaller, the drama is – while at times explosive – well contained. It’s in Wharf One not the huge Sydney Theatre across the road. And most importantly, it’s a play that requires a director with the thinking power to match that of Joanna Murray-Smith. What this play has to offer its audiences rings out loud and clear, nothing messy, under-realised or over-stated. I feel a huge personal relief to put those words into print, because Andrew Upton has been on the receiving end of some tough words from me. To his credit, he has remained professionally respectful, indeed welcoming and cheery when our paths have crossed. Here is a job by Upton very well done.
One last comment. It’s a good cast all round, but one particular performance stands out. Of course one can never go past the work of Robert Menzies, who plays the father. But it is the performance of Sarah Peirse I want to privilege. New Zealand born and bred, she is well known there for her work. I first encountered Peirse in Neil Armfield’s production of David Hare’s Gethsemane – where she certainly caught my eye – ‘classy’ I thought. Her next Sydney encounter, also at Belvoir, was in the dreadful Business. That production offered her nothing to work with and I would not be surprised if it was an experience she would rather forget. Now here, in Fury, she is offered a fabulous role and it plays to her strengths. Peirse, whatever else she has in her bag of tricks, appears naturally sophisticated, stylish, worldly-wise and in full command of her body as an instrument. There are little things she does with her hands and her head, and the way she begins a sentence which in a less-skilled actress might appear as ‘ticks’. But in Pierse, guided by years of experience, she knows not to rely on her best moves to keep her afloat, but more judiciously picks the moments when we realise only Sarah Pierse can get away with that (something similar could be said of Judy Davis at times). I know I might have been going a bit actress crazy of late. Most recently putting Helen Thomson up on a pedestal. For credibility’s sake, let’s call that the pedestal for ‘a young actress’. So for Sarah Pierse we need another pedestal – for an actress ‘at the height of her powers’.
As you can tell, I had a good time at Fury. I was fully engaged as well as impressed. And I loved how it forced me back into the cauldron of my working principles – reminding me that judgement is always driven by hidden forces. We can never know them all, but we must do our best as critics – to continually ask not ‘what’ so much as ‘why’. The STC is having a great year. It’s been a long time coming, but not for want of effort. Looking ahead, I would be very surprised if there is not going to be more good stuff for us from the STC this year.
The ‘something I have to say’ referred to near the top has to do with the editing of Tom Holloway’s Forget Me Not. It’s a play and production that merits a fulsome response. Separately and together, both have very many virtues. I am a big Tom Holloway fan. And I know it’s not fair to leave a comment like this hanging. Where is the ‘why’? But I did wonder about the trimming of that script – was too much taken out? Unlike the excellent editing of Fury, it felt like bits of Forget Me Not were missing. And I know it was trimmed at some point in the development process. My feeling was that the gifted Colin Moody was not given enough material to work with – whether they were cuts from his own role or that of his long lost mother. I don’t know when I will get to that play/production – I may not – but if I can I will.