Belvoir tonight feels barer than usual.
Michael Gow has written his first play in seven years and the aisles are packed, but the stage looks less a stage and more a sad bachelor’s apartment. Director Eamon Flack’s set for this German-expressionist-Australiana hybrid feels like no set at all. Dropsheet all-white like a shower curtain. Bare wooden floors. The room like an open cake-box: empty and white-walled. Decoration (chairs or a bed) to be added when needed and subtracted when not. It seems Flack and set designer Nick Schlieper, fresh from the seven hour extravagance of last year’s Angels in America are investing in something pared back. Not so much crisp Scandinavian minimalism, but, with lighting cleverly a tad dingy, the curtain looking more nylon than cotton – a bit of a year-nine-play-staged-in-the-gym feel.
It starts with everyone on stage at once. The cast slink in from the right, sheepish like we’ve caught them in the middle of rehearsal and they’ve all arrived late. Eight-strong, fanned out in a semicircle, they form an opening milieu. It’s all a bit meta. “Hi and thanks for coming”, says Will Drummond (Brendan Cowell). “Scene one: I’m in an airport and all I can think about is Bertold Brecht.”
Gow’s play revolves, unapologetically, around Cowell’s Will. Will is a middle-aged theatre director, obsessed with Brecht, and a Marxist. His father has just died and his mother is coming for Christmas. Their relationship is evident from the start. Will’s monologue greets us and kicks everything off, and the moment it’s over his mother Jeannie (Helen Morse), steps up to deliver hers. In minutes the pattern of this production is set: Cowell is the centre, Morse his heavy, orbiting satellite. Already it seems like these two are the only characters who really matter. The rest of the cast watch from all sides, silent, like a built-in peanut gallery or a particularly judgemental Greek chorus.
Given the reliance on Will, it is lucky that Cowell plays him excellently. He is at times a single-handed sustainer of momentum. A light touch at the play’s funniest. Manic at its darkest. He gives us anguished monologues at breakneck speed, almost devoid of punctuation, but with a rhythm that chops and changes and ratchets up the tension. Red-faced and babbling, he portrays Will as a man whose reaction to trauma is to talk his way out of it.
Morse, too, is impressive. Grey-haired and thick-voiced, she balances Will’s mania. Better still is her unspoken performance, her ability to conjure sudden frailty from nothing, to kinetically suggest a dark, overhanging sense of illness. Morse lifts one veined arm and drags the audience into silence – imminent melodrama checked, Cowell’s steam-train halted. Needless to say, their shared scenes are the play’s best.
These two aside, the play seems to have no strong personalities who aren’t Karl Marx or Berthold Brecht. There is an astonishing socialist fire in the belly of this play – a class consciousness that borders on the compulsive. Readings from the Communist Manifesto are intercut with Carols by Candlelight and there’s even a rousing rendition of The Internationale.
Brecht is everywhere, even in the stagecraft. At one point Will turns directly to the audience and lectures us in Brechtian theory. “Actors should not act like a real crowd”, he says, “but should move only when the power balance shifts”. The emptiness of Schlieper’s set now makes sense. In Flack’s production, the stagecraft comes from the movement of actors, not the space they inhabit. The cast are corralled, dealt out in circles, arranged in lines. At the end, they are sent into the crowd, perched on the aisles like bored schoolchildren (undercutting the play at its most didactic). With Cowell getting all the best lines, they feel a bit like human stage props. But even this has its dramatic kicker – when they leave, Will looks more alone than ever.
Royal David has only two real failings. The moments of comedy feel lightweight, cobwebby and strewn over the top of the production without too much thought. The ending also borders on excessive. There is a moment on the 90-minute mark when Will sits, alone for maybe the first time, stagelights turning to blue. It seems a perfect ending, but the action keeps going. Gow’s script feels caught up in its own momentum – the play just tumbling out words, a perpetual motion machine. Like it’s been running so fast the whole 90 minutes it needs the last ten to cool down. In a way, it’s both a drawback and a perfect expression of everything that came before it. Almost as if the structure itself cannot contain Will’s moist-eyed, unceasing, babble-as-a-way-of-coping personality. He has to have the last word, and he does.
Once in Royal David’s City is frantic, obsessive and so, so excoriating. It carries itself on pure passion, but feels a bit fragile at its core – the lack of texture from its supporting cast very evident (a symptom of the writing more than the acting). Though the double-pivot of Will and Jeannie is upbraiding and compulsive, you get the sense they’re operating at times in a vacuum, getting a bit tiresome and over-long when left on their own. When the lights come on at the end, the burst of applause is sudden and remarkably loud, like the audience is attempting to match the emotion they’ve seen laid out before them, but it feels a bit celebratory in its relief as well.