DOUBLE DISSECTION: STC’s ‘Sex With Strangers’ & BELVOIR’s ‘Private Lives’

Both of these plays, currently showing in Sydney, have two things I want to address in combining them in this review. The first is the use of accents. The second is the romance that permeates both plays. Naturally the unspoken third is the time crunch I’m currently under. But let’s imagine I’m far more organised and calculating than I actually am and that this was always going to be a double review.
STC’s ‘Sex With Strangers’ is a made for theatre realist rom com. Now, as we know- I’m a chick. But I’m also a sucker for romance and I now have a big crush on Ryan Corr so let’s just say, I really enjoyed this play.
Yes- it’s an expensive night in the theatre watching what is essentially a performance that can go straight from stage to film. It’s a realist relational piece, a two-hander, two-act romantic comedy. For those who want a more eclectic staging and style, this play perhaps is not your best outing this year. But for me, I was engaged from the start and relished every moment of the interactions between the characters.
Directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse and starring Jacqueline McKenzie and Ryan Corr, Laura Eason’s play gets a faithful rendering on stage and so it’s no surprise, given Moorhouse’s experience directing film and television that this play reads that way. Even the text on screen on the backdrop, juxtaposing designer Tracy Grant Lord’s great wilderness scapes and then the urban sophisticated bookshelves was a lovely filmic device that added to the feel of this play, especially aided by lighting designer Matthew Marshall and Steve Francis’ sound composition.
‘Sex With Strangers’ certainly has the skilled hand, experience and depth of all the talented women working on it. They knew how to develop this material and still respect the differences in gender, age and social politics. The play is more than a romantic weekender- it explores generational sensibilities, creative angst, the role of social media and the power of human connection.
This play is clearly set in the States and yet, for me, the choice to do Australian accents didn’t bother me in the slightest. Unlike a classic piece of American Realism, like a Miller or Williams play, where the themes are also caught up in the American dream, experience or character, Eason’s play is far more universal in its characters’ journeys and if not for the reference to the occasional American city, you would not have known any different. In fact, you could argue they may have been Australians living in the States if it bothered you. The Australian accent was not out of place and the play flowed freely in its voice.
Again, Lord’s design was clever in its use of levels, in how it allowed actors multiple ways to use the space, to create this entire world and give us insights into what was ‘out of shot’. I loved the use of the stairs, the open planned living areas, the world of the rustic retreat as opposed to the sterile whiteness of Olivia’s (McKenzie) home. This was a play where the design clearly enhanced the action. There was also chemistry between the actors and the contrast of the characters’ personalities, their writing, goals, choices, passion, was enchanting to watch.
If I had questions about the play it would be whether men who watch this play would be as engaged? Is this a play designed for younger to middle-aged women to thoroughly enjoy and fantasise over Ryan Corr and immerse themselves in the romance of the plot and its natural conflicts? Will the style of it feel passé to a younger generation who have been brought up on a diet of glass boxes? Will men feel like they’ve been conned into watching a chick-flick on stage? I’m not sure but I would be interested to hear what those responses were. I’m also interested in Ryan Corr’s number, if anyone has it…
Backing up Ryan Corr with a smattering of Toby Schmitz, let’s move on to Belvoir’s ‘Private Lives’. Directed by Ralph Myers and designed by Ralph Myers, Noel Coward’s script is thankfully left intact and is just as funny in text as we would hope. In some ways, ‘Private Lives’ is an anti-romance. In the classic style of farce, there are couples abandoned on their honeymoon, couples who reunite to discover why they left each other in the first place and then the chaos of all couples on stage at the end.
I think we all know about Belvoir and what staging any classic play means. The Belvoir set is anti-historical, meaning that there is a deliberate move away from staging anything in its original setting, original design and original voices. It must be made to be ‘contemporary’. Honestly, I’m not convinced when they do it. It feels forced and at times, contrived. If the statistics that the adolescent male brain doesn’t stop developing until the age of 35 are true, it certainly explains almost every choice the artistic team make at Belvoir. There is a lack of maturity in many of the choices made by Ralphie and team.
Look, I did enjoy this play. This is Coward’s best and as long as you hire the right cast and leave the text to do its work, it’s going to be a funny play. It’s what the director does with it that will either make it funnier by working with it or impose a vision out of step with the writer’s intention and make the natural comedy of the play harder to stage for its actors. Enter Ralphie, his cardigan blowing in the wind, his torn corduroys flapping about with the intensity of the inner west grunge and his insistence that the themes of the play are as valid to us now as they were back then and that we should use our Australian accents and our contemporary dress. Then he spends his entire director’s notes trying to convince us of that. When he says that “class is incidental” in this play, I thought, ‘Poor Ralphie. If he thinks class is irrelevant in ‘Private Lives’, he just doesn’t get it’.
The characters of ‘Private Lives’ are British upper class. They live decadent, idle lives. They have too much money and not enough meaning, they are distracted by the trivial and make light of the significant events that occur or that they enact. They are whimsical and hedonistic. I’m not surprised the Belvoir set found this contemporary. It describes half of them.
Coward makes a pointedly funny issue on class and when you read his play, you hear that voice. And saying it in that voice, that accent, makes the play even funnier. This is a social satire on class, done tongue-in-cheek. To do this play in Australian accents actually makes it less funny. Sure, we can say that everyone, regardless of class and culture, can live idle lives but you see, the common man living without meaning seems a bit sad. However, the rich man in a society built on class and of “no fixed occupation” living this way, that’s comedic, especially when the statement being made on class and lifestyle is so beautifully explored in the original.
Add to that the bland costumes of Alice Babidge, as instructed by Ralphie’s vision. How many people were a little disappointed to see Amanda wearing leggings and a sweat top for most of the play? Is not some of the humour found in the idea that the ‘glamorous’ set wear their elegance only superficially and underneath is a naked hollowness? Dumbing down those costume choices is a dumbing down of the characters. You’ve just lowered the stakes and dismissed one of the most important ideas that Coward magnifies under his class microscope. Yes- ladies- I saw you shiver in excitement when you got to see Schmitz in his white undies. I’m not taking that away from you. But would you perform Wilde’s ‘Importance of Being Earnest’ in Aussie accents and track pants? No you would not. Could you? Sure.
The play feels dull in colour. The tasty flavour of Coward’s work has been stripped down to its core ingredients- the words only. The dialogue still contains all the humour you’d hope but it feels bland in performance because of Ralphie’s directorial choices. His decision to make sure that the director is king, as is Sydney’s penchant, is all over it but it does him no great favours. I will say his set works and allows for all the entrances and exits in quick succession you could hope for. He’s a good designer. The play works. He understands the themes and the form. It’s just the play could have been better had he trusted the writer and the cast. It is Belvoir’s greatest indulgence throughout this and last season, to tinker with the work, especially when it is unnecessary. The adolescent male brain is still under construction.
Toby Schmitz as Elyot was as predictably good as always and I will admit, I loved the mime-show guitar hero inclusion of Phil Collins’ ‘In the Air Tonight’. I thought Eloise Mignon was perfectly cast as whiny Sibyl. Toby Truslove coped exceedingly well with his fractured foot as stoic Victor (poor Truslove is destined to play the man who weds all of Schmitz’ cast offs). And Mish Grigor’s Louise captures the absurdity and comedy of the maid, whose attitude towards ‘class’ is left in no doubt.
If there was a performance that didn’t always work it was Zahra Newman as Amanda. I felt there were lapses in comic timing, vocal clarity and pace. I welcome the colour-blind casting- I hope to see more of it- in fact I’m laying down the challenge for a black Ophelia in ‘Hamlet’ next year right now. But Newman wasn’t always in control of the role. When it worked best was in the conspiratorial silences or in the ‘time-outs’ on stage, in her actions and interplay. It forced her to engage in what was happening on stage. Other times, it felt like when she was speaking, she was banging out that dialogue as if the show had to come down 20 minutes early. It may be a farce but the flow of pace and rhythm should feel natural and not forced. Newman still had plenty of good moments in her actions and movement but I don’t think she hit the beats like the rest of the cast. There were definitely vocal issues.
All I ask, as do most audiences everywhere, is for the best theatrical experience you can have of the play you’re watching. Sometimes that means keeping traditions, sometimes it means reinventing it. It’s the power to know what and how that seems to elude Club Belvoir.
Thank God Coward’s Estate doesn’t insist on accent and glamour. Who wants another Belvoir scandal…sorry…I mean ‘miscommunication’? But if you had to have one, wouldn’t it be funny to do it in clipped British accents? Yes. Yes it would.
Now someone get me Ryan Corr’s number. Stat.

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5 comments

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That Guy October 27, 2012 at 11:33 am

I'm sorry, you lose all right to comment on the immaturity of directors when you use schoolyard insults like calling the director "Ralphie" and describing "his cardigan blowing in the wind, his torn corduroys flapping about with the intensity of the inner west grunge".

It's very funny, but it's not at all adult and it's the reason why you got described as an abusive internet troll rather than as a valid critic by people like Alison Croggon. Quite accurately.

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Anonymous October 27, 2012 at 8:45 pm

I actually find your comment quiet irrelevant as this review is intended to be honest. If you have read this blog previously, you would know it stands out from the lies of main stream society. This may not be your cup of tea but it tells the truth.

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That Guy October 28, 2012 at 3:21 am

Really? Then let me speak the truth in response. I think it's pretty damn inappropriate for a teacher of adolescent males to be so completely dismissive of their cognative abilities, and to use it as a term of general abuse. I think it's pretty poor form of anybody to judge anybody based on gender and age, as Jane has done, repeatedly.

If I spent most of a review of Sex with Strangers calling Joceylyn Moorehouse "Jocycie", I would, appropriately, be accused of sexism and belittling her considerable accomplishments.

Reviewing should come from a position of respect towards the artist. You may not like what they've done, and you're entlted to, but splattering random abuse around like, well, shit, tends to make the critic less and less useful, or truthful. There's a very very wide gap between truth and ad hominem abuse.

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Anonymous November 2, 2012 at 2:45 pm

Yes I agree it should be a more robust conversation about the straight up and down of whats on stage rather than painting silly pictures of Benno, Ralph, Simon and Andrew. You have done that gag stuff to death, certainly well deserved when you were starting the blog but how bouts stepping up and talking about whats on stage and what you felt and judge the production as a stand alone piece of theatre.
Endlessly slagging male directors under the age of 40 begins to sound like baby boomer whine.

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Anonymous November 3, 2012 at 4:28 am

"Speak the truth in response" ?? .. really??
I suspect you're on the wrong page… It's a blog, not a NYTimes review!
The whole point is to speak the truth, – as Jane sees it. Not yours.
In fact, the cheekier, mischievous, irreverent, and dare I say truthful, the better.
And as for the, 'respect for the artist' thing…
I mean, it's a play. A commercial arrangement to pay money and be entertained.
Everyone involved are no doubt skilled practitioners, and artistic too, some of them. But so is my accountant.
You don't have to read-n-agree, just accept there are other points of view expressed in so many ways. Some colourful and some boring.
Hence, Shit On Your Play.
If you don't like it, say so by all means, but it'd be nice to give a reasonable reason.
You admit her schoolyard insult is funny but knock her for it. And then besmirch Alison Croggon by calling her a 'valid' critic. Poor thing.
Doesn't make sense.
Shoot the messenger by all means but do it in style if you don't mind.
I actually don't agree with Jane, re Sex, but of course support her right to be wrong. I think her instincts were accurate, it's a good Girls Only night out. A quick glance around the audience last night confirmed it. The girls and their girlfriends were clearly all over Ryan Corr, although the young woman next to me wasn't and left at interval muttering something about Home and Away.
It was the boring middle class tone I didn't like. Hugely successful trash writer wants serious acclaim, – like buckets of money wasn't enough? While a serious and sensitive writer struggles with anonymity, until the love of a younger man comes along. Please!
We run through the usual cliches; books smell nice; social media is trash; mobiles make bad sex; mainstream media is totally fascinated by literary squabbles; she's written a 'fabulous' and 'brilliant' book, (about what?); he's got a 'fabulous' and 'brilliant' book in him; love blossoms, goes bad, and blossom's again…. very North Shore.
I agree, the set design was classy, the music good and the projected quotes from great writers a good idea even if they only served to highlight the lesser writing on stage.
I don't agree it would make a good film, at least not without a serious Ephronesque make-over, – although the sex scenes with Ryan might appeal to the chic-lit-on-stage crowd. I'm not a chic so I wouldn't know.
I love Shit, but she's wrong this time. In my view.

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