Louis Nowra was onto a good thing when he set out to write not just one but three plays about the squabbling power play within Sydney’s richest family.
Three bickering sons and their aggressive construction magnate of a father make a compulsive, very Sydney story. And we can all relate to family tensions around inheritance and rivalry.
Much more is at stake in this last play of Nowra’s trilogy as the old tycoon clings stubbornly to life upstairs in the mansion while the three sons wait below.
Alex Dimitriades plays the once prodigal son who is back in Dad’s favour now he has sired his own son. His wife, remembering poverty from childhood, grabs his crotch and whispers ambition into his ear, so he’ll stand firm and seize his father’s empire.
The youngest son Luke (Toby Schmitz) has lost all desire to follow that path. Central to the second play, A Marvellous Boy, Luke is still haunted by the murder of his lover and the nightmare that he might become like the father he accuses. Indeed all sons occasionally become possessed with the voice of the father and his deranged hatred.
Jack Finsterer gives the best performance, as the loyal son in love with the business but too crippled with cynicism to grasp power. He is well matched by Sibylla Budd as his barren but well-bred wife struggling with the demons of drink and mental instability.
And so, waiting for Dad to die, these five rich characters drink, plot and spit out their emotional baggage with Nowra’s distinctively florid language. There’s fine wit and venom, lots of entertaining flights of fancy, but Nowra’s indulgent language holds back the play from being an even sharper, more cruel portrayal of family cannibalism.
We all understand this tug of war between family loyalty and rebellion, between what we wanted as children and what we actually got -“ and how that compares with what our siblings got.
Nowra has elevated this eternal story into an empire of great wealth where much is at stake. The play -“ without an interval -“ is an absorbing two hours of convincing drama, tightly directed by David Berthold. The only thing missing is another whole layer of themes and the social comment of which this playwright is capable.
The Emperor Of Sydney is at the Stables Theatre, Kings Cross, until 23 September.