Sydney Theatre Company and the State Theatre Company of South Australia, Dunstan Playhouse, 13 April–1 May 2016. Written by Sue Smith. Directed by Geordie Brookman.
|Photo: Brett Boardman|
‘In the middle of our life’s journey, I found myself in a dark wood,’ begins Dante’s The Divine Comedy. The sentiment, although attributed to the author’s 35-year-old narrator, has an inclusive ring; we all, Dante seems to be saying, stumble into the selva oscura – the dark wood – sooner or later.
For playwright Sue Smith, the entrance to the wood was marked by a cancer diagnosis – non-Hodgkin lymphoma, the same cancer my oldest brother was lucky to survive as a child – in 2014. Smith’s play Kryptonite, a co-production by Sydney Theatre Company and the State Theatre Company of South Australia, was about to start rehearsals; the news that she was seriously ill must have arrived like a thunderclap, the first sign of a deluge that washes away all the old certainties.
In her new play, Machu Picchu, Smith transmutes her experience of cancer into a creakingly familiar scenario: a sudden, unexpected event – in this case a car crash – turns the lives of middle-aged, middleclass engineers Paul (Darren Gilshenan) and Gabby (Lisa McCune) upside down. The play opens with those lines by Dante, muttered by Paul moments before a stray kangaroo propels him into the depths of his own selva oscura with a ‘C6 incomplete spinal cord injury’.
Permanently disabled, and haunted by drug-induced visions while recovering in hospital, Paul’s pain and immobility kindle an existential crisis that was probably going to happen anyway. Incan engineering marvel Machu Picchu, with its remarkable cut stone infrastructure that ensured the famous ‘lost city’s’ endurance as a historical site, becomes the locus of Paul’s dashed dreams: he and Gabby had always meant to go, but now it is too late. Life, as they say, intervenes.
Smith knows how to write complex but humane dramas that, like a clear voice emerging from a loudhailer, project the narrowly particular onto the vertiginously universal. Kryptonite was, for me, a fine example of this kind of play, director Geordie Brookman’s epic theatre flourishes vividly exposing the vim and sweep of Smith’s deeply thought and felt inquiry into Sino-Australian relations since the Tiananmen Square Massacre.
Machu Picchu reunites Brookman with Smith, but the results are altogether more mixed. It’s said that the stones of Machu Picchu fit together without mortar so tightly that a knife blade still can’t penetrate the cracks between them – would that the same could be said of Smith’s play. Where Kryptonite was unerringly taut and outward-looking, Machu Picchu feels jerry-rigged and insular.
Watching it, I was reminded of critic Murray Bramwell’s observation about the middleclass plays of Yasmina Reza: that they are about less than they seem. Paul’s tragedy, however entertainingly leavened by Smith’s witty dialogue, rarely connects to the world beyond his and Gabby’s cocoon of bourgeois privilege. That Smith relentlessly satirises the indulgence and narcissism that are the fruits of this privilege – as in a scene set in a meditation retreat run by a stuttering guru (Renato Musolino) – only draws attention to the play’s circumscribed vision. Unlike in Chekhov’s tragicomic meditations on middleclass frustration, Smith’s characters only ever seem to be speaking for themselves.
This would matter less if Machu Picchu held together as well as Kryptonite, but unfortunately it doesn’t. More than one reviewer of the Sydney premiere season suggested that the play was a couple of drafts away from being stage-ready. I hear that changes have been made between then and its present run in Adelaide, but there remains much to be ironed out.
Neither the play’s flashbacks nor Paul’s hallucinations – indifferently staged in this production – provide much in the way of psychological insight, and the script abounds with improbabilities: not only does the guru pop up again, this time as a new-agey psychologist, at the hospital where Paul is convalescing, but so too does his daughter, Lucy (Annabel Matheson), who happens to be a nurse there.
It might fairly be asked, too, why Paul and Gabby have remained friends for so long with a couple as obnoxious as Kim (Elena Carapetis) and Marty (Luke Joslin), and with whom they seem to share little chemistry. A more significant question is that of who’s story Machu Picchu is; it feels, variously, like both Paul’s and Gabby’s, and the uncertainty twists out of focus the play’s themes: perseverance in the face of personal tragedy, and making the most of lives we know to be fragile and finite.
Gilshenan and McCune, familiar from innumerable television roles, are well cast as Paul and Gabby, McCune successfully playing against type, Gilshenan impressing in his fearless uptake of Smith’s unsparing portrayal of disability’s physical and mental hardships. The smaller roles, anemically drawn, give the rest of the cast little to do except fill in the interstices of Paul and Gabby’s deteriorating relationship with broadly humorous brushstrokes. It’s tempting to wonder whether the two-hander form Smith applied with such success to Kryptonite might not have been fruitfully reemployed here, perhaps in combination with a set less grimly naturalistic than Jonathan Oxlade’s uninspired wall of hospital-green flats.
Machu Picchu strives to invite us to imagine our own sudden descent into Dante’s ‘deep place’, untouched by the sun. But Brookman’s direction, compassionate as it is, can’t make the leap for Smith – or for us.