ROCK SURFERS THEATRE COMPANY’S ‘EMPIRE: TERROR ON THE HIGH SEAS’

Camus’ ‘Caligula’ explores the absurd notion of the human condition and the idea of what right we have to oppose tyranny, what limits can we place on them or, in fact, ourselves. When Caligula states, “Ah, my dears, at last I’ve come to see the uses of supremacy. It gives impossibilities a run…What’s the use of this amazing power of mine if I can’t have the sun set in the east? ” he may well be describing Toby Schmitz and his new play/spectacle ‘Empire: Terror on the High Seas’. I say this, not calling Schmitz’s play a great example of Theatre of the Absurd (although I think ultimately that’s what it’s trying to be, mixed with a stir of Dadaism) but because Schmitz, Emperor of the Sydney scene, has just pulled a Caligula. He has murdered theatre in front of us, firmly stuck his fingers up at his audience and told us to suck it.

I think we’re all in shock with how mind-boggling bad this spectacle (as Schmitz calls it in the program) was. My first thought was ‘You can’t be serious’ and I don’t think he is being serious. I genuinely think Schmitz is having a go, via an attempt at Theatre of the Absurd, but at what and at whose expense? At theatre? At his own reputation? At the worst he’s ever been forced to watch or partake in? At the genre in some sort of Agatha Christie parody? In his playwright’s notes he refers to the British Empire Exhibition and war poetry but skims completely over the play, leading me to think, this is not a serious attempt at writing a piece of theatre. He’s just testing the waters to see if he can get away with it. If so, it’s a pretty expensive joke on its cast, crew and audience to make a rather dated point about the human condition. 

So let’s get stuck into some details about the play (spoiler alert…in fact, the whole play might fall into this category). When did I truly dismiss this spectacle as a pie in the face? It might have been when we got to the 68th murder on board the Empress of Australia circa 1925. Perhaps it was when our murderer, revealed at the end of Act One, plays with his deformed (self-harmed) penis as he strangles yet another victim. Could it have been when Mr Richard Civil-Lowe Cavendish had his intestines tied to a rope, with a knife at the other end, so he had to gut himself in order to free himself or kill our serial killer. Maybe it was the international cast of characters with bad accents; the twee allusions to homosexuality; the sinking of the ship so the murderer can get away as the perfectly timed bomb goes off; the chemical-weapons-infected-steward, John Rowling, jumping overboard; the characters who almost never spoke and when they did, we still don’t know why they did; the detective grabbing the conveniently placed broom, only seconds before moved into position, to unlock his handcuffs that he put himself in; the ghost of the singer Poppy Mitchell rising up to sing and be killed all over again or the voice overs from the lighting box at the end? Each and all of the above.

But really, it was probably in its opening minutes I knew the play had hit an iceberg as Mr Frey read us a bit of dadaist poetry and the cast of thousands walked out from the audience to stand in front of us in the spotlight with a pleading look of mercy in their eyes. ‘Empire’ was a hot mess and its audience were left in stunned silence over the atrocity in front of them (not the murder, the actual play). Even at the end of it, we still are left unsure as to the reason that our killer was doing it all in the first place. If you ever wanted an example of how intention and effect can be completely unrelated, look no further. I kept waiting, ala ‘The Producers’ and ‘Hitler in Springtime’, for someone to yell out “It’s a comedy”. No-one did.

I cannot express to you enough just how surprisingly bad this play was and I don’t know that director Leland Kean or his cast could fix it. It’s straight out melodrama with a nod to the Absurd with a few witty lines but lacks control of the form and has misread its target audience. It felt like one of those dodgy amateur high school shows with an element of the risqué.  I don’t even feel like there’s much point criticising the acting or direction because I think they know that ship sunk before it even sailed. This is the Rocksurfers’ Titanic.

And I love a bit of Schmitz. I’m gutted at what I just sat through. I don’t think I’ve ever given him a bad review but Emperor ‘Caligula’ Schmitz has stuck the knife in, ripped out the baby and has left us all gaping at the carnage. 

Heaven have mercy.

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6 comments

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Anonymous September 4, 2013 at 4:11 pm

I am in this show. Absolutely feel free to say whatever you would like to about this production. But please don't ever be so presumptuous to assume that we, as a cast, are up there collectively feeling like we are on a 'sinking ship', or that we are all sharing a 'pleading look' on stage. We are genuinely having a wonderful time doing this play. And we certainly know that this will not please everyone. Completely made my peace with that. But can you please NEVER assume to know what we, as a cast, are experiencing up there. That is quite mean-spirited and dumb, as it has no basis in truth. And may I reiterate, I do not mind at all, that you struggled with the production. Just don't speak on our behalf. Anthony Gooley. Say what you will.

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Anonymous September 5, 2013 at 10:46 am

Jane I am impressed that so many industry professionals read your blog. Your voice is one that people seek out and enjoy hearing. Or not. But that's irrelevant anyway. Succinct. Yes. Controversial. Always. Honest. Most certainly. Opinions informed by a breadth of knowledge. You bet. Keep up the great work! Cate

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Anonymous September 15, 2013 at 5:41 am

I thought the play was terrific fun. A bit over-long perhaps, but full of mad and wonderful stuff and well directed and acted, with Ella Scott Lynch especially good. I don't go to the theatre to be reassured or cuddled by the familiar, so I enjoy plays that poke their heads up above the battlements. Don't be put off by this sour review.

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Anonymous September 15, 2013 at 11:37 am

I was annoyed that I wasted my Friday night on this play, sorry Toby I enjoyed your previous play but I feel you went too far with this one!! The theatre was very stuffy too which made it difficult to stay awake! The only saving grace was the fantastic voice of the singer, sorry I don't know your name!

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Anonymous September 25, 2013 at 3:36 am

Saw the play last night and regret not knowing more about Dadaism beforehand. The first character that speaks claims to be a Dada poet and the rest of the play uses the principles of Dadaism which substitutes chaos, selfishness, selfindulgence, nonsense, amorality, pettiness – just to name a few – with what is considered normal. As you can imagine, this is a very destructive kind of "normality" and the Dadaist world in the play spirals downward to a destructive end. It is kind of reassuring that I didn't like most of the characters because their values were very self-interested and if everyone in our society were like that then life would propably be very bleak. Thankyou to all the actors for a wonderful ensemble performance. I wish I had seen this earlier to have an opportunity to see it again.

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Anonymous October 11, 2013 at 1:06 am

We loved the production, thorougly enjoyed it. Loren.

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