Monday, February 28, 2011

Review: Apologia

Melbourne Theatre Company.

There's a certain kind of theatre that strives to give an impression of significance while leaving me feeling as if I've just watched a quadratic equation being solved. Apologia seems fresh from the mould: it observes the classical unities of action, space and time; derives its conflict from generational differences; injects references to another great artist to imbue itself with authority (in this case, Giotto); brings everyone together through a token situation (birthday party); features characters who represent strict ideological positions (US evangelism; 60s socialism; post-capitalist liberalism; self-obsessed consumerism); uses the excuse of celebratory drinking to allow these figures to 'loosen up' and have a bit of verbal biffo; lets the complex fissures between these discursive positions slide into individualistic, personal differences; presents a 'shocking' revelation or two that interrupts everything that's gone before; everyone has a bit of a moment and learns something about themselves and leaves in the morning.

Apologia has it all, but somehow flips the equation around. It's as if playwright Alexi Kaye Campbell has taken the form of the safe, middle-class family drama not as the desired end his script will try to reach, but as the starting point for something that will problematise, rather than resolve, the weltanschauung this kind of theatre posits. Then again, it could well be that it's the performances this production offers which make it more than the sum of its parts. On the page, the central figure of Kristin Miller could be read as a reactionary caricature of social idealism, but there's no way of watching Robyn Nevin in this role without being on her side all the way.

Don Parties On addressed the failed legacy of 60s activism and the 70s cultural revolution by turning to the audience, shrugging palms up and raising its eyebrows with a “whayagonnado?” Apologia charts similar territory while asking its audience “what did you do?” Nevin's Miller can't be written off as a type, or a relic, or a judgement, but is a startling character accorded a great deal of dignity here. She tried to change the world and, along the way, caused a fair bit of damage to people in her care, but unlike most dramas of this sort the underlying hum doesn't seem to be suggesting that utopian dreams are always doomed to failure and we should therefore restrict ourselves to cultivating our gardens.

To take seriously the beliefs of someone other than yourself is a fine starting point for any playwright, and Campbell's ability to do just that might be what marks this play. Even a born-again Christian is allowed some of the piece's most affecting moments, though once more it's actor Laura Gordon's performance that makes this such a powerful turn (and really, Gordon's work with Red Stitch only reminded me how that company should be on the MTC casting department's speed dial).

If the play follows the form of a straight-up conservative drama it does so in a way that begs its audience to understand, rather than decide upon, the validity of all views expressed therein. I have no idea where Campbell stands on the beliefs of any of his characters here. But as John Cassavetes put it: “To tell the truth as you see it, incidentally, is not necessarily the truth. To tell the truth as someone else sees it is, to me, much more important and enlightening.” 

Fairfax Theatre, the Arts Centre, until 9 April.

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