Three plays currently in production have foyers buzzing, not least because they all could be classified as issue-based plays. They are all based around a particular theme or idea, are wordy, naturalistic and controversial. My Zinc Bed, Spinning Into Butter and Copenhagen tackle respectively, though not necessarily respectfully, alcoholism, racism and, well, atomic fission. Comparisons between the three bring into sharp relief the difficulties in realising such complex works.
First up is the disturbing Spinning Into Butter by Rebecca Gilman, showing at the Ensemble Theatre until 29 June. A play about racism, political correctness and hypocrisy, Spinning Into Butter is mostly upsetting because it is a play about combating racism, that is itself profoundly racist.
The plot concerns a new dean of students, Sarah (Tara Morice), who has just started work at a mostly white college in Vermont. The trouble begins when she seeks out Patrick (Myles Conti) to encourage him to apply for a minority scholarship, and the trouble amplifies when an African-American student notifies the staff that someone has been posting racist notes on his door. The big punch of the play, and the hook which has led to the play being described internationally as brave and uncompromising, is Sarah’s confession in Act II. Despite having studied African-American culture and analysed her white guilt, Sarah still believes she is profoundly racist. Worse still, she feels that certain of the more loud black students of her past would have less difficulty in life if they weren’t so lazy and stupid.
Before putting on spurs in preparation for mounting my high horse, I should point out that I believe it is a positive thing for such issues to be discussed on and off stage. Spinning Into Butter gets the discussion going, but is betrayed by minority characters who are either unbelievable or absent. The only non-white character shown on stage is a walking parody of the excesses of so-called political correctness and his concerns about how he is identified (from Latino to Nuyorican) are presented as a joke. Finally, without revealing too much, it isn’t long before the mantle of racism falls at the door of the victims themselves.
If you can put the politics of the work to one side (which can be difficult), then there are pleasures to be had in the production. Tara Morice is remarkable, and surely one of the most underrated actors currently working in Sydney. Newcomers Brett Hicks-Maitland (as the student Greg) and Myles Conti are also strong in their small roles.
In David Hare’s My Zinc Bed (playing at Belvoir Street Theatre until 16 June), Paul (Ben Mendelsohn) is a recovering alcoholic and poet who cuckolds his mentor Victor (Tony Martin). Victor is a one-time socialist now dot-com capitalist who offers Paul a job for a gigabyte of reasons that include philanthropy and even a hinted-at homosexual attraction. Most striking of all his motives, however, is Victor’s zealous attitude to alcoholism, in particular to Paul’s self-professed salvation via Alcoholics Anonymous. Victor’s wife Elsa (Angie Milliken) was once an alcoholic as well, and was rescued by the indomitable Victor. Her salvation is tempered by his belief that complete abstinence is unnecessary for recovery. For Victor, groups like AA represent a far more dangerous addiction, with their rhetoric of weakness and their impossibly stringent demands, resulting only in the perpetual attendance of followers. AA or not, it’s not long before Elsa proves as intoxicating as Paul’s inevitable comeback margarita.
The obvious metaphor here is love as an addictive, mostly harmful and self-destructive abuse -“ and it’s a connection older than Cole Porter’s I Get A Kick Out Of You. The focus on the treatment of alcoholism is less successful, for a number of reasons. Firstly, the possibility that alcoholics might have a legitimate medical problem is dismissed as never having been proven. Secondly, the binary of AA versus alcoholism is a little limited. The theatre program’s reference to Rational Recovery (RR), an international organisation that offers a radical alternative to the principles of AA, is a telling inclusion by Company B.
There are great performances here as well, with Mendelsohn, Martin and Milliken convincing and sharp. Mendelsohn’s pain is palpable and he also plays a fine drunk (a dubious compliment for any actor).
Finally, Copenhagen by Michael Frayn is playing at the Wharf until 14 July, and is a startling and entirely successful entry in the 2002 STC season. On paper the play sounds potentially dull. Copenhagen is based on an historic meeting between Niels Bohr (John Gaden) and Werner Heisenberg (Colin Friels) in Nazi-occupied Denmark in 1941, in which the former teacher and student discussed atomic physics. The world leaders in physics at the time, the two men also represented opposite sides of the war. Heisenberg was teaching in Germany and supportive of the Nazis, and the half-Jewish Bohr and his wife Margrethe (Jane Harders) lived in fear of their lives and believed they were under the surveillance of the Gestapo.
Rarely has a production offered such a stark contrast between incredibly sparse and simple stage action and breathtakingly high emotional stakes. Did Heisenberg come to Copenhagen to spy on his old mentor, to glean information about Allied efforts to build an atomic bomb? Or did he visit his old friend to pick his brains about the theoretical possibility of splitting the atom? These few questions fail to do justice to the myriad of quandaries raised.
It’s a herculean task for the three actors, who clasped hands in a circle at the play’s end and gasped, Yes! Friels, Gaden and Harders are incomparable, the direction by expatriate director Michael Blakemore precise and perfectly paced. (It should be -“ Blakemore directed the recent West End and Broadway productions of Copenhagen, winning a Tony to boot). It’s naturalistic, wordy, intelligent and static and the most engaging example of this type of theatre seen for some time.
Spinning Into Butter is playing at the Ensemble Theatre, 78 McDougall Street, Kirribilli (phone 9929 0644). Company B’s My Zinc Bed is playing at Belvoir Street Theatre, 25 Belvoir Street, Surry Hills (phone 9699 34454). Copenhagen plays at Wharf 1, Pier 4, Hickson Road, Walsh Bay (phone 9250 1777).