National Theatre of Australia

Liberty Equality Fraternity

21/04/20

Digital Theatre

The worldwide pandemic is leading us into some unexpected waters. My previous knowledge of Australian Theatre would best have been described as ‘very minimal’. But after recently watching and enjoying Emerald City on Digital Theatre, we’ve been prompted to seek out another production by the National Theatre of Australia.

Liberty Equality Fraternity is a tight little three-hander that plays rather like a witty update of Kafka’s The Trial, demonstrating how, in the age of social media, it’s impossible for anyone to have secrets. Whatever we do, whatever we say, it seems that somebody is always watching us.

Orlagh (Caroline Brazier) sits alone in a tiny room in front of a blank screen. She’s been at work on what seems like a normal day, when she finds herself unceremoniously bundled into isolation, with no real explanation of what’s happening to her. Has she broken some obscure law? Is she about to be accused of something? Then in comes ‘Arkie’ (Andrew Ryan). It’s not his real name, he explains, but refers to an extinct bird that he’s rather fond of. Arkie, it turns out, knows a lot about Orlagh. He has intimate details of every aspect of her life, including incriminating photographs which soon start to appear on the screen behind her – and, it transpires, he’s trying to establish connections between her and other people, some of whom she knows, and some she has never heard of.

As the interrogation continues, Orlagh’s fears start to mount and they are not exactly assuaged with the appearance of Walter (Helmut Bakaitis), whose suave and effortless dismissal of all that has gone before seems, if anything, even more sinister.

This is a dark and often caustically funny piece, written by Geoffrey Atherden and featuring sterling performances from the cast. Ryan is particularly good as the boorish Arkie, frantically trying to maintain control but subject to to his own fears and inadequacies, as Orlagh gradually begins to get the measure of him and turns his techniques back on him. It soon transpires that Arkie too has secrets he’d rather not share with the world.

The play asks some pertinent questions about the perils of contemporary living. Why are we so ready to share every detail of our lives on social media? Do we honestly believe that such platforms are harmless… that they might not one day be used against us?

Liberty Equality Fraternity may not provide any answers but it certainly asks some highly relevant questions.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Emerald City

26/03/20

Digital Theatre 

We’ve managed to find ways to get our cinematic fix from home, but what about theatre? In the normal run of things, we’d be out two or three times a week watching shows, but these are extraordinary times. Thank goodness then for Digital Theatre, which, for a modest £9.99 per month, gives us access to a whole range of top-level productions. A quick glance through their offerings reveals that there’s plenty of Shakespeare on there, musical theatre and a lot more – but tonight we’re in the mood for something completely new to us, so we opt for the Australian National Theatre’s production of Emerald City by David Williamson.

Set in the 1980s, it’s the story of Colin (Mitchell Butell), a critically acclaimed screenwriter, recently moved from arty Melbourne to money-obsessed Sydney, where all the big Australian film deals happen (think Australia’s Hollywood). Colin and his wife, Kate (Lucy Bell), who works in publishing, move into a modest apartment with their children (whom we never see nor have any real sense of) and Colin sets about writing a long cherished project, based on his Uncle’s wartime experiences. His hard-bitten agent, Elaine (Jennifer Hagen), isn’t keen on the premise, which she feels just isn’t commercial enough.

At a party, Collin encounters Mike (Ben Winspear), a wannabe screenwriter with more ambition than his slender talents can support – but he does have a bullish approach that seems to get results. The two men team up on Colin’s project, though Mike is clearly more keen to work on his own idea, a kind of Australian Miami Vice. Colin soon finds himself unhealthily fixated on Mike’s girlfriend, Helen (Kelly Paterniti), and she is clearly interested in him. As the two men’s lives become increasingly entangled, Colin’s professional integrity – and Kate’s – come up against some unexpected challenges.

At first, I’m not at all sure about this production. The garish and unconventional stage set is rather unsettling, with the actors moving out into the audience, along a kind of V-shaped thrust design. Characters keep breaking off from conversations with each other to confide their innermost thoughts to the audience which again, takes a little time to get used to. But, once into the rhythms of Williamson’s approach, the piece embeds itself and starts to pay dividends.

This is a dry and witty play that constantly points up how difficult it is to have integrity in a world that is so fixated on financial results. The eternal conflict between art and commerce provides the real meat of this story. Winspear offers a bruising depiction of toxic masculinity and Hagen somehow manages to be the personification of every literary agent I’ve ever met. Some of the developments are wildly funny – I love the idea of a publisher flying first class to the Booker Prize ceremony when the author of the nominated book has decided not to go because she disagrees with the very idea of it!

I have thus far had no knowledge of Australian theatre but Emerald City proves to be a rewarding first dip into its unknown waters.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney