A YOUNG WOMAN'S PERSPECTIVE ON GENERATIONS OF MALE VIOLENCE
by Kate Mulvany
Director Anne-Louise Sarks
MELBOURNE THEATRE COMPANY
at Arts Centre Melbourne, Fairfax Studio, Melbourne, Australia
From 22 Feb 2012 to 4 Apr 2012
Reviewed by John Smythe, 6 Apr 2012
The Seed is one of five Australian plays the Melbourne Theatre Company is producing in its Main Season this year (along with five from the UK, including Queen Lear, and two from the USA). Four of the five plays in its Studio Season are Australian (the other being translated from German). "Just sayin'," as they say.
The Irish Catholic diaspora looms large in Australian history, spreading from to the earliest influx of forced settlers (a.k.a. convicts) to 'free settlers' seeking a better life in the early 19th century. The 1960s resurgence of 'The Troubles' in Northern Ireland, spreading into hated England, sparked more escapes to 'The Lucky Country'.
Although the particulars of Kate Mulvaney's play, written on commission, are largely autobiographical – except she does note her three onstage characters are nevertheless drawn from a number of sources – Robin Hood and Guy Fawkes are also invoked in what finally reveals itself as a powerful critique of the nature of sectarian-cum-civil warfare. Suffice to say she proves how fanatics and fantasists may have much in common.
Having married a good Catholic Englishwoman (now deceased), devout IRA-aligned dissident Brian Maloney (Max Gillies) lives alone in Nottingham, near Sherwood Forest, where two of his three 'activist' sons also reside. Mysterious stacks of sealed cardboard cartons adorn his home. His birthday is the 5th of November: celebrated for the day Guy Fawkes conspired to blow up the British houses of parliament. In this house, however, the 'Guy' effigy is an honoured guest.
The trouble Brian's third son, Danny (Tony Martin), got into with the law from an early age is evoked as a prologue to the play. It later transpires that it was after an incident at the local pub that he escaped to Australia, as a teenaged 'ten pound Pom', only to be conscripted at 20 and sent to fight in Vietnam, where he was exposed to the carcinogenic chemical defoliant Agent Orange. (Mulvany's father was conscripted, despite just being a permanent resident, and was never awarded Australian citizenship, presumably because of the family associations with the IRA he choose to break away from.)
Danny's one trip back to Nottingham, before this one, resulted in the conception of the only child he and his Australian wife Glenys managed to bring full term. Rose (Sara Gleeson), a writer, has survived the kidney cancer she was born with and is now 30. In fact today – 'Guy Fawkes Day' – is her 30th birthday, and she and her father have come to share it with her Granddad (or "Grandda!!" as the running gag goes), who is turning 80.
The trinity of dissidents – Robin Hood, Guy Fawkes and Brian Maloney – is offset, then, by a compliant conscriptee who has paid dearly for choosing to fight for 'the Crown' instead of against it, as has his wife and, even more so, his daughter. Like many of his peers, not to mention his father, Danny is given to angry outbursts, and anger also seethes with the apparently mature and relatively 'together' Rose.
In designer Christina Smith's wide-open set, lit by Matt Scott, and with a splendid soundscape by Jethro Woodward (the fireworks noises are especially evocative), director Anne-Louise Sarks emphasises the play's meta-theatricality dimensions to the detriment, initially, of our subjective engagement.
It is hard to empathise with the characters in the play's first half. Much of the action seems contrived to establish the whys and wherefores – which, however, will pay off handsomely in the final quarter – because not enough attention is paid to drawing us into the sub-textual undercurrents that must surely be tugging at the emotions of all three generations.
Given the role of narrator, to which she brings a nice smiling and curiously dispassionate demeanour, Sara Gleeson's Rose seems more detached from the present action than she needs to be. Only when she confides her true feelings towards healthily pregnant women and the men who made them so, do we begin to get her true measure. But when the anger-fertilised seed of dissidence – or is it outright criminality now? – sprouts within her, Sarks sets Rose with her back to the audience, when we most want to read her state of mind and emotions.
Tony Martin navigates Danny's troubled and sometimes volatile state with emotional integrity. It's unfortunate he is not allowed to be present in the crayfishing sequences, which Rose narrates in episodic fashion, as this might have allowed us to share in the closeness of their relationship. His explosive expose of the contents of the boxes is a superbly rendered high point.
Max Gillies' Brian presents as a tin-pot self-styled god, filtered, we must presume, through Rose's eyes. His Irish blarney and impeccable timing produce many a releasing laugh as the nature of his activism unfolds and finally unravels. It is a role that raises many credibility questions which pay off with a tragic-comic impact that rewards our sometimes tested trust.
What finally sets The Seed apart from other revisitings of Vietnam Vets and The Troubles is the perspective on generations of male violence brought by a young woman whose lack of seed is directly attributable to the sins of – or perpetrated against – the fathers: hers, his and so on, back through history. The moment when Rose has the opportunity to re-activate the cycle or break it makes for powerful theatre.
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