Hannie Rayson brings us two brothers from a good Melbourne family and private school, both with high self-esteem, but one a brittle politician aspiring to be PM, the other a compassionate defender of the underdog.
Throw in lots of topical laughs -“ and sly allusions to the current treasurer and his caring brother -“ and this is the sort of play with social polarities that David Williamson could retire on. Rayson’s plays, however, while sharing Williamson’s wit and milieu, always give us more.
A murder early on sets up the pace of Two Brothers as a political thriller, but it’s a pace which never cramps Rayson’s sophisticated handling of the moral dilemmas central to Australia’s recent treatment of refugees.
James Eggs Benedict is the minister for Home Security who, during a family gathering one Christmas morning, makes a call to order a Navy frigate not to pick up refugees found drowning alongside a SIEV (what Defence calls suspect illegal entry vessels).
Unfortunately for Eggs, one witness/ survivor makes it to shore, and to Eggs’s brother Tom, a lawyer fighting for those in mandatory detention.
Worse, Eggs’s own son Lachlan was aboard that same frigate and shares the loathing of his Navy mates for the decisions of his father.
Will Tom and Lachlan break family loyalty to expose Eggs, just as he seeks to grab the prime ministership? What lengths will Eggs go to to blackmail his own family into silence, let alone barter the future of the poor refugee who just wants to be an Australian? And contrary to the polls, do you or anyone really care about this?
Two Brothers is staged in quick, cinematic-style scenes on a revolving stage, and Hannie Rayson makes us care and makes us think. One of the best fictions yet to unravel this sad Australian experience, Rayon’s masterpiece is not helped, however, by the unsubtle direction of Simon Phillips.
Garry McDonald’s nervous energy as Eggs makes for good easy comedy but is unbelievable for the cold pragmatism required of the PM-to-be.
Nicholas Eadie in turn is inconceivably mumbling and unmoving as Tom. Phillips enjoys their comic point-scoring without exploring the gaps between.
But Rayson’s play shines through these gaps and Phillips gets fine performances from the other varied characters in the family.
Two Brothers is compelling theatre and at last we have a must-see play.
A joint Sydney and Melbourne Theatre Company production, Two Brothers runs at the Opera House until 2 July.