Rabbit by Londoner Nina Raine is typical of playwriting these days, but a particularly successful example of it. You get a realistic setting – a yuppie drinking venue and a few mates meeting up to celebrate a birthday – Nina’s (Alison Bell). Everyone is 29 these days it seems. The mates include a couple of ex-boyfriends: one major, Richard (Toby Schmitz); and one minor, Terry (Ryan Johnson). Then two girlfriends: Emily (Kate Mulvany) and Sandy (Romy Bartz). All are highly educated, civilized – and seem to have everything. That’s what I mean about this being a typical play for now – same terrain as Tommy Murphy’s Saturn’s Return and Brendan Cowell’s Ruben Guthrie, and several more if I stop to think. It’s either ‘bored and employed’ or ‘back from Iraq’ these days.
There’s always a stylistic riff, and this one comes in the form of hallucinogenic appearances from Nina’s father, called Father (Geoff Morrell). It’s not been an idyllic relationship, but Father is dying. So why the heck is Nina out with friends celebrating when she should be with Father? Well, that’s what gets sorted out over the course of the play.
While Rabbit appears to be just another case of today’s young-people-with-everything feeling something is missing (and to some extent it is), Raine makes a good case for empathy. Better still, this play – typically composed of shallow chit-chat over more and more alcohol – ends up travelling some distance: and so you feel like you do go on a journey. Missing from far too many plays these days. Whether you were charmed or not, this was the problem with John Doyle’s Pig Iron People – it was a still-life picture not a journey. While I just can’t imagine Toby Schmitz ever being a barrister (far too disrespectful of convention) or Kate Mulvany a surgeon (can’t see her putting the knife in), these are not criticisms. Both are wonderful actors, it’s just that after a while you just get to know actors to well – even if you don’t really know them at all.
The acting from everyone in this production is good – one of the pleasures of the show. This is a good group and the performance I saw – a Saturday matinee a small way into the season – all were on song. Alison Bell gives a wonderful shape to Bella’s journey. And while she may be just another privileged brat, none of us can be blamed for the times we are born in or the circumstances. I got to greatly care for her predicament. I felt her pain.
While everybody in the cast is strong and true, I want to say something about Toby Schmitz. Putting aside the fact that he is the profession’s current top spunk, Schmitz has an amazing gift to animate his characters, move quickly between dark and funny, and appears to live deeply in the moment. So naturally gifted, I put out this warning notice while he is still on the way up: be vigilant or you will end up with no more than a bag of oft-applauded tricks. Yes, the audience loves you – so don’t go there. Schmitz was excellent in both The Great and Ruben Guthrie. I look forward to seeing him get offered a rip-your-guts-out soul-searching classic role?? Coz I think he can do more than charm and laughs.
Another of the delights of this production is the work of Brendan Cowell making his mainstage directorial debut. I will say this now. Cowell is a very talented writer, but his natural facility (not unlike that of his good friend Schmitz ) is not a best friend. Sometimes you wish for more rigour. Writing a play ‘over-night’, or whatever, is not necessarily something to brag about. Cowell, too, is a born actor, and his naturalistic work is strong and true. And while there were great stretches of Hamlet where he was in the zone – called me old-fashioned – but I find it ridiculous that a person with zero technique in verse delivery would be cast in such a role. That was marketing not casting, however ‘good an effort’ Cowell put in. He was fantastic, in my view, in Caryl Churchill’s Far Away, my all-time favourite modern (post?) play since Godot. Yep, I think it’s a masterpiece. But back to Cowell and directing: this production of Rabbit is beautifully paced, well nuanced, and one senses a happy camaraderie in the rehearsal room encouraged the lovely, open, shared performances we get to see. If it was a miserable rehearsal process, then Cowell did an even better job to bring the separate parts together.
Cowell is one of the lucky ones to have been taken under Nevin’s influential wing. It was a good call on her part. From the first play of his I saw, an endlessly long ATM, with twenty scenes that should have been the last, it was clear Cowell had talent. You worry sometimes that it comes a bit easy. Even Ruben Guthrie, which he spent more time on, is still more of a scratch than it is open-heart surgery. That Cowell spurns criticism with what sometimes feels like a cavalier over-confidence might come back to bite him on the arse one day. To become a great writer he needs to keep pushing at narrative and formal boundaries. That said, Cowell can be very happy with his directorial work here. I would have no hesitation seeing him at the helm of another production. Let me make a daring prediction: this may end up being what he becomes most famous for. I like getting in early: I went up to Cowell at the end of ATM (despite it going on forever) and predicted he had a big writing future. So let’s see how off the mark I am with this one. His intimate experience as writer and director feeds excellently into his work on this engaging production.
Can I say how much I love the work of designer Genevieve Dugard? I got to meet her out in the desert as she is the designer for Ngapartji Ngapartji. One point I’ve not fully articulated about that show, despite all I have written, is how beautiful it was (is). This is the split in the path between director Scott Rankin and other theatre artists working in so-called ‘community’ theatre, his aesthetic is so highly evolved. And so it is not surprising that he likes to work with Dugard, whose work is not just functional but lovely to look at. Dugard’s designs possess a sophistication and elusive wistfulness that lift you to a higher plane. It is not generally known that Dugard was invited to design Gale Edwards’ recent Rocky Horror Show, the one where she was meant to have a free hand at a whole new look and concept. Sitting on a bus out in the desert, I got some sense of the bold new vision Dugard offered to that project. It really was quite brilliant – a spin on contemporary celebrity culture that would have turned Rocky on its head. And worked – I believe – in a fresh way for a whole new generation. Not surprisingly, it was too much for that &^$#*()*&face Richard O’Brien and his narcissistic money-glutton team, and so Dugard was taken off the job. As we all know, Edwards ended up creating a version just like every other so far – which just happened to have an unusually good cast. An opportunity squandered.
Why Nina Raine called her play Rabbit is beyond me, I think it’s a nickname used by her father just once. Though I do appreciate the fact that most plays these days are called Rabbit (including one by Cowell) or refer to rabbits (I Hate Rabbits). I’ve even got a bit of one in my bottom drawer that’s not called Rabbit, but has some rabbits in it….ones that have had their ears ripped off by some yuppie on crystal meth (oops). It will likely stay in the drawer – I like to stay fashionable, but one draft short if public scrutiny (lol). Interestingly Cowell’s own Rabbit was picked up by Frantic Assembly in London, in 2003, to whom Cowell submitted and worked hard on many fresh drafts (contradicting what I said above). it was likely better for the further work, though I don’t think the production set London on fire.