Victory means triumph. The latest offering by the Sydney Theatre Company was always going to be a hit, given the presence of Judy Davis as both actor and co-director, not to mention the weighty support of Colin Friels, John Gaden and Genevieve Lemon. It is set during the Restoration and written by Howard Barker, a British playwright of some notoriety -“ audiences are warned in advance of strong language.

Victory deserves to be a hit for much less cynical reasons, however. It is a remarkable, multi-layered, fiercely entertaining and emotionally thrilling play, realised within an intelligent and stunningly acted production.

The plot concerns the quest of Bradshaw (Judy Davis), whose husband was executed by Charles II (Colin Friels, pictured) for his role in the regicide of Charles I. Bradshaw wants nothing more than to bury her late husband’s corpse, which has been dismembered and arranged for public display around London. Bradshaw determines that her husband’s beliefs were his downfall, so she resolves instead to follow a philosophy of total non-resistance, which eventually sees her finding favour with Charles II himself.

Written in 1984, the play was in many ways a criticism of Thatcher’s England (it was written during the Falklands War) and echoes remain strong of the work’s critique of a conservative culture restored.

Like all great plays, however, Victory seems to be all about right now. Bradshaw’s shocking spiritual resignation is a frightening embodiment of today’s shattered individual, struggling against institutions as vast as the US armies, both military and cultural.

Judy Davis’s performance is effortless and dazzling. There are no histrionics and no stage business, just the rare honesty of an actor following her instincts, listening to other characters and being utterly present in every moment. Colin Friels is equally spectacular, bringing warmth and danger to the role of the disturbed monarch.

There are some disappointments. The use of curtains certainly suggests privilege and subterfuge, but it is too reminiscent of traditional and amateur theatre. The reduction of certain minor characters to comic foils is also a miscalculation (perhaps by the directors). Glenn Hazeldine’s performance as Bradshaw’s son, for example, seriously undercuts his eventual reunion with his mother.

Still, Victory is a ripping fable brilliantly told. Don’t miss this one.

Info Victory is playing the Wharf I Theatre until 12 June. Phone 9250 1777.

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