Saturday, February 13, 2010

Review: Farragut North

By Red Stitch Actors Theatre.

Farragut North follows a pretty basic story: guy gets greedy, brings about own downfall. Universe also has it in for him a bit. I think this is what we call Tragedy. It’s what dominates narrative-based theatre and I was thinking about how we really are still beholden to the old comedy and tragedy models of narrative when it comes to theatre. Either people have differences and then get over them, or someone gets done over by their own hubris. Is that all we’ve got?

It’s sometimes noted that US politics is entertainment. This goes beyond the movie stars who move into politics – the whole political realm is a form of spectacle with all the glamour and artificiality that suggests. This can be dangerous, I think. When people wrote off George Bush as a stock character (the bumbling buffoon) they diverted attention from the very real power he wielded. But it’s also what makes it so difficult to pull off great fictions based on US politics: the reality is already a fantasy, making made-up scenarios redundant.

The West Wing was probably so widely praised for managing to jump this hurdle. It was a TV drama that didn’t just try to reflect upon real world events, but actually managed to influence them. The White House team of The West Wing were, in one sense, even more real than the people who were sitting in office. That’s how it felt to the show’s true devotees, at least, and there are no shortage of them. The West Wing wasn’t tragedy or comedy, either; like so much great TV from the States these days, it seemed very keen to play around with the old narrative structures to which we’ve grown accustomed. 

But it’s a tough feat and it’s one that Farragut North struggles to match. You simply can’t help but compare the play to the West Wing, and just as the TV series was created by people who had worked within the world described, so too was Farragut North written by someone who’d worked on the campaign trail himself. Playwright Beau Willimon isn’t Aaron Sorkin; more importantly, he isn’t a team of writers. There are points in his script that would never have made it through a writer’s meeting, and repetitions and flabby bits that sorely demand some editing.

Farragut North isn’t a bad script once you get over this familiarity, and there’s much to be commended in Red Stitch’s production. Brett Cousins proves again that he’s one of the safest bets in Melbourne – I don’t think I’ve ever seen a show in which he’s been less than terrific. He has a hard job here: he plays a thoroughly unlikeable press secretary who brings about his own ruin through greed and disloyalty. He fraternises with the wrong people and it gets him in trouble. You really don’t care about him because he’s such an arrogant and opportunistic grub for most of the time, but Cousins gives him something – not exactly sympathy, but humanity – that makes you want to continue to watch how events unfold. Guest performer Lucy Honigman’s also great in her role as a young intern who gets caught up the machinations that spell his undoing and manages to avoid reducing her character to caricature.

The show was packed the night I went along and the audience all seemed to get caught up in the piece – there were lots of appreciative comments overheard in the foyer afterwards. I figure Farragut North will be a winner with Red Stitch’s core audience of subscribers, but for me it lacked the edge of some of the more exciting and dangerous pieces they’ve put on in recent years.

Playing at Red Stitch Actors Theatre until 6 March.


Anonymous said...

What do you know about the 'core audience' of subscribers? Bugger all, I'd wager. What do you know about clever scripting? Have you ever had the remotest whiff of an idea to tailor a piece of narrative as compellingly structured as Farragut North. Comparisons with the West Wing are odious. That's TV drama (it's different - think about it) and, moreover, it's a Series where characters are given a long time to develop. 'Core audience'? - who are you talking about? Do you not think those same people might have been making equally appreciative comments at some of the more 'experimental' pieces you refer to? Fine to cast about such banalities on a blog but in a major newspaper? Perhaps your subeditor should show a little more interest.

Born Dancin' said...

Fair points, Anon. That someone can so passionately defend the merits of the play is enough to refute some of my arguments, I reckon, and my reference to Red Stitch subscribers wasn't at all intended as disparaging - the people who support the company so loyally (one of Farragut North's big themes right there) obviously extend their consideration to the whole range of productions RS create. Without one there couldn't be the other. I sincerely hope I didn't sound sneery or glib above.

When I write 'core audience' I should probably write 'implied audience' - the audience I infer from the work the company creates. In this case, I imagine that Red Stitch subscribers are people who are interested by an Actors Theatre, as the company name suggests - probably a highly diverse lot but most of whom can really spot a great performance, can get their teeth into an actor getting *their* teeth into a role. If this is true then Farragut North is a success, since its biggest strengths are in its performances. But again, I hope this doesn't sound as if I'm being reductive towards or dismissive of subscribers.

The reason I'm critical of Farragut North is that I expect a lot from a Red Stitch production, and this is the company's fault. Farragut North is a play, not a TV series, sure, but this means I primarily compare it to works such as Red Sky Morning or Motortown or Rites of Evil or Yellow Moon. Red Stitch have had so many strong showings that they've set their own standard of quality and professionalism at a pretty high mark. I think it would be disrespectful to say 'they've earned their stripes - it's all praise from here on in'.

I think someone holding high esteem demands to be held to high account, but perhaps that's some old, sublimated Karl Marx from my undergrad days. I could always subscribe to Groucho Marx instead - "those are my principles, and if you don't like them... well, I have others."