University of Adelaide Theatre Guild. Little Theatre. 5 May 2018
My first viewing of Australian playwright Stephen Sewell's Myth, Propaganda and Disaster in Nazi Germany and Contemporary America was State Theatre's excellent production in 2003 - the first since the world premiere. I was blown away by the audacious honesty and shear bravery in tackling the issues of the erosion of American civil rights and executive sanction of torture that followed the destruction of the twin towers on 11 September 2001 (9-11) via a frighteningly plausible narrative. In an interview conducted after Myth.... and published on the Currency Press website, Sewell said, "...it was only gradually that I realised that the United States had in fact abandoned [Western values, such as the rule of law, the outlawing of torture and suchlike] decades before, and that torture centres such as the School of the Americas, in Fort Benning in Georgia, renamed after 2001 as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, had been training torturers and death squad militias for many years." Surmises like this have spread beyond the domain of rabid leftists like Sewell; few people believe it's not impossible any more.
A wonderful device used by Sewell to bring Australia into the story is to make Talbot an Australian academic in a New York university. Myth... is the title of his provocative post-9-11 thesis. For a social researcher so forward and controversial in his thinking, he would have to be the most naive person in the world to be utterly surprised about the unwanted attention his thesis attracts; Talbot is no Jordan Peterson. Talbot's protagonist is a shadowy spook bent on bringing him back into the neoconservative fold, by force if necessary. Miller's The Crucible meets Orwell's 1984, and there is even a self-reference to Kafka's The Trial in case you still don't get it.
Maybe while Sewell is Head of Writing for Performance at Sydney's National Institute for Dramatic Arts, he is reflecting on the dialogue in his wordy play of fifteen years ago. Dialogue like this made-up example:
A: "Did you go to the market?"
A: "Did you go to the market?"
B: "The market?"
A: "Yes, the Central market."
B: "Why do you want to know?"
A: "I needed some bread."
B: "So, it's my fault we don't have any bread?"
Sewell's characters in this play are absolutely the worst communicators, and they are a lesson in how to escalate a difficult conversation into a hopeless confrontation - thus rendering the drama I suppose - but it's tedious when it's overdone.
Director Eric Strauts theatrically creates Sewell's exciting New York of city view apartments, intellectually stimulating university life (and cynically unhappy university life eg. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), creative writers, and even a visit to the Guggenheim. His actors are well directed into some shattering and searing scenes.
Fagan as the much abused Talbot gave us a palpable mental deterioration. His nemesis, played by Steve Marvanek, looked a bit corny in sunglasses and gloves, but overcame looks with malevolence. I have seen the work of these wonderful actors many times and they would have been better suited in traded roles. Who needs enemies when you have friends like Talbot's Max, played with Machiavellian intent by sharp actor James Black. His work in the conversations between Talbot and Max were highlights. Bravo to Yasmin Martin as the wide-eyed student. She was a terrific amalgam of 1960s idealism, new century internationalism and functional feminism. Tantalising echoes of David Mamet's 1992 Oleanna were in the drama between Talbot and Martin's Marguerite. Tim Edhouse nailed the role of the dean of Talbot's faculty. His calculations over how to deal with Talbot had a real-world glint to them. Jessica Carroll might have gotten more out of her contribution as Talbot's screenwriter wife, Eve, but Sewell took her role too many places away from the main story. The exception was that she was a great vehicle for Talbot to go on a rant about what's important in life - movie writes or human rights.
Brittany Daw's set design had a feature unseen by myself at the Little Theatre and may be a first - the use of risers to provide different floor levels to segmented acting scene areas, which was good. The red pill-shaped motifs decorating the walls reminded me of code (The Matrix) and blood; maybe they meant something else or nothing at all. Unfortunately, a lot of important and frequent action (Talbot's office, Max and Talbot) was squished into the tiny upper left portion of the acting stage which gave a few people a neck ache. The frequent use of the image of a Nazi-like eagle poised over the USAF insignia made the point of parallelism chilling. Wonderful murder mystery music (Isobel Clemow-Meyer) covered the stop-start scene changes, although transitions might have worked better.
If you think we live in dangerous times, this play is a reminder that the buffoonery of Trump is peanuts compared to the erosion of civil rights and sanction of torture that happened under Bush after 9-11. It is also a compeller to be constantly vigilant and to exercise your democratic rights. Indeed, I found the abuse of power in the play deeply saddening, more so because I don't do enough in my own backyard, like protest against all these crap apartment buildings going up in the city. My complaints about the script and production are small beer compared to the big ideas and scary possibilities explored in the play and I urge you to see it.
Heed what Martin Niemöller (1892–1984) wrote, referring to the Nazis:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
When: 5 to 19 May
Where: Little Theatre, University of Adelaide