By Drew Pautz
Directed by Matthew Dunster
Venue: Cottesloe Theatre
Date: Thursday 17th June 2010
This play set its stall out very effectively, but in a misleading way. The opening scene was set in a meeting room somewhere in a posh hotel in a major African city – I didn’t catch any names, and I got the impression it was meant to be generic. The attendees were all clerics, dog collars well to the fore, and since one was a woman, I assumed this was an Anglican shindig. The initial point being clarified was who wanted what to drink. It emerged later that this group had sequestered itself away to thrash out an agreement which included a wording about accepting different lifestyle choices (i.e. homosexuality), and for all we know that may have been the sole purpose of the meeting. The African delegates were having none of it, the lone woman was the only one who dared to speak up for the European and American congregations, and the archbishop, Stephen, was trying to encourage them all to play nice. Some hope! When I talked about them ‘thrashing’ out an agreement, it wasn’t entirely metaphorical.
When the coffee arrived, the group all closed their eyes, so as not to be influenced by any outsider. There was some humour in the way they chatted with the waiter, and he was certainly surprised to find everyone had their eyes shut. Only Jonathan Cullen’s character Michael opened his for a short spell near the end, as he tried to give the waiter a tip from the general contributions. After he left, the arguments went on, and showed no sign of doing anything but entrenching the opposing views even deeper.
This was good stuff, and since there were no program notes to give us a clue as to the overall direction of the piece, we naturally assumed that the themes of reconciliation, attitudes to homosexuality, and the way the west treats the rest of the world and vice versa, would be given a good airing. But no. The next scene shows us Michael and the waiter, Joseph, after they’ve had sex. Joseph wants Michael to take him back to England. Michael is appalled at the idea, and there’s a very stuttering conversation which darkens into menace and even violence, when Joseph shows Michael that he’s taken Michael’s wallet and passport. He refuses to give the passport back, but Michael is saved by the arrival of Daniel (yes, they all had tediously obvious biblical names, apart from Shelley, Michael’s wife). This scene felt very dated. Homosexuality may not always get an easy ride still, but it is talked about more openly than was shown here, and if all we were meant to understand from this scene was Michael’s discomfort with his own actions, then we could cheerfully lose about three-quarters of the dialogue, as we got that point very early on.
The next scene, which took us up to the interval, was set back in England, in winter, in Michael and Shelley’s house. I must confess to dozing off a bit at this point – there was so little to keep me awake. Basically, they dodge and spar around three subjects – at least Michael does the dodging – but they’re both showing the wear and tear of a problematic relationship. The subjects are their difficulty having a child, Michael’s recent obsession with reading the Bible at home, even on weekdays, and the removal of a squirrel family from their loft. I have no idea what we were meant to get from this, none whatsoever.
The second half also began with a good scene, this time Michael having a management meeting at the envelope-making company which he owns. He wants to add church donation envelopes to their range, what with the reduction in letter sending, but his team aren’t enthusiastic. They’ve clearly had enough of his attempts to sanctify the workplace by removing the porno calendars and putting up religiously symbolic pictures of light shining through clouds instead. One chap was brave enough to point out that they didn’t know what to expect when he came into work – nice Michael who was considerate and understanding, or money-man Michael, all nose to the grindstone and telling the staff off if they made a mistake. When Michael asked what they thought he should do, the lone woman (again) suggested he kill off one of the Michaels, so that at least the other one would have a chance to make things work, a very funny moment.
Shortly after this, Shelley arrives. She wants to know who Joseph is, Michael is reluctant to tell her, they bicker (the staff have left the room by this time), and before you know it, they’re getting ready to have sex on the table. The scene ends with a knock on the door at a most inopportune time. Very funny.
I think the next scene is the final one. Daniel and Stephen, the nice Archbishop, turn up in the basement of Michael’s local church, to prepare for some speech that Stephen will be making shortly upstairs. They discover Joseph hiding out there, with Michael’s help, and the whole story unravels. Daniel, who appears to be some kind of spin doctor for the Archbishop, is totally wound up at the prospect of a gay liaison being uncovered at a local church, and while the Archbishop is actually there! Stephen seems to be more concerned about the welfare of Michael and Joseph.
We also get to see the scars on Joseph’s back, so we know just how bad things were for him back in Africa. Other than that, there’s not a lot to this scene. It ends with Joseph, smartly dressed in a suit, heading up the stairs to the main body of the church, but to do what, we hadn’t a clue. Michael is left, cringing in despair in the basement, but again, we’ve no idea why. The music swells, the light shines through the stained glass window, and all to no effect as far as I was concerned.
With plays like this, I feel I miss out because I was never brought up in an organised religion. I’ve learned a few things along the way, but sometimes the arcane methods and practices of these groups are so obscure to me that I reckon a lot of the subtler points miss me by a mile. I have no idea why we were being shown these things, or what we were supposed to get out of the piece. We both felt there was a good play in there, with some moments that work very well on stage, but it needs a lot of work to make the grade from our point of view.
© 2010 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me