Red Stitch Actors Theatre.
As Picasso put it, every act of creation is first of all an act of destruction. Picasso was a bit of a dick, but I often think it's a nice way to think about narrative. I don't often think that, really. I just thought it was a good way of introducing the point I want to make, and starting with a quote by someone like Picasso might lend an air of authority to proceedings. Actually, I just went trawling for quotes by Picasso with no real point in mind and when I found a neat one I began working on a thesis to justify its inclusion. Though, to be totally honest, that's a lie too – I did know what I wanted to say and recalled that quote and had no idea who said it so I turned to the internet to find out. One thing's for sure: Picasso was definitely a bit of a dick.
Ruben Guthrie is a bit of a dick. A self-serving advertising executive on a whopper salary with a supermodel girlfriend, he finds himself manhandled into an AA meeting after one of his typical nights of drink and drugs proves too much for his loved ones. From there we embark on a sustained investigation of the place booze occupies not merely in Guthrie's life but in Australian society at large. It's tersely written, at times hilarious, and gently provocative without ever appearing didactic in the least. I really liked it.
Creation entails destruction: when you posit the existence of something, you erase the infinite possibilities that formerly existed in that same moment and space. You reduce the boundless field of what might be to the hulking fact of what is. It's a little less certain when you apply this to storytelling – you can make a distinction between plot (what happens) and story (the broader realm of implied possibilities allowed by the plot but not necessarily limited by it). Some of the most effective stories are wondrous precisely because of the difference – a sharp, concise, tiny plot that produces a huge world which exists only in the imagination of its audience. I'm reminded of something Edward Albee said to the effect that the finest piece of playwriting will never need a character to mention anything from their history – rather, the way they act and speak now, in the moment, will reveal everything that's vital about their past. I don't think this is the only way, but it's a fascinating ambition.
Some of the stories I like best – especially the theatre I like best – keep the possibilities alive as long as possible. As they progress, you imagine the different paths they might take and what the story might really be about and when things boil down to an inevitable resolution (or at least an ending) those other paths stay lit somewhere in your mind.
The obvious paths offered by the story of Ruben Guthrie are typical of the addiction narrative – will that bloody Guthrie beat the demon drink, or will he fall off the wagon? The great strength of Brendan Cowell's writing is that he answers yes, and yes. And yes and yes and yes. While narratives are usually resolved, the life of a recovering addict (the life of anyone, I guess) never resolves itself with the same kind of finality. Even death doesn't really mean the end of a story, since that story always bleeds into other stories. And stories themselves are just ways of ordering things far more messy and polluted. So the apparent trajectory of Ruben Guthrie (will he or won't he?) turns out to be less important than the other questions raised along the way – who is he? Why is he? What could he be?
This is one of Red Stitch's sharpest productions of late – the performances hit every mark, and the casting is just perfect. Nobody tries to be liked, but at the same time there's an empathy extended to every one of the flawed characters presented. And it's a tough ask; Cowell's script is sophisticated enough to render each of his creations with an invigorating complexity. A dying man can still disappoint us. A woman who triumphs over her own problems can still make others' lives harder. Parents can want the best for their child while delivering their worst.
There was a point in the show where I thought it was finishing and sat up thinking “great show, stunning ending, you bloody bewdy etc” before another scene began. There were at least another fifteen minutes to go, perhaps more. I could have walked away entirely satisfied at that point, and in the end I felt one of the later scenes was a bit of a let-down after what had come before (it fell back on a style of writing that seemed more obvious and strained). But really, it only added to the piece – if it had ended when it felt natural to do so, it wouldn't have been true to the kind of life it was enacting. There can be death, there can be redemption, there can be things of any magnitude, and then there will be the next scene.
At Red Stitch until March 5.