“I’m a good person. Isn’t that enough?”
Falling neatly into place in a SUDS summer season of innovation and experiment, When Good Men Do Nothing made me very uncomfortable. It also made me laugh. Sophia Roberts and Clemence Williams, working as writer and director respectively, have brought us a script and a staging for it that are both daring in their own right, and both deliberately galvanising in ways that are not always complementary, though they’re certainly powerful. Featuring simple but strong performances from Meg McLellan, Charlie O’Grady, and Julia Robertson, When Good Men Do Nothing should have been seen by more people. It is not a show interested in letting its audience get away with having the straightforward catharsis or amusement that we’re permitted by most of what is staged in Sydney. (It’s worth pointing out that we live in a city, and in a campus culture, that is comparatively hostile to theatrical experimentation.)
Sophia Roberts is a very funny person, – she directed The 2014 Arts Revue, is a fixture of the stand-up scene, and made her authorial debut with the world’s first Proudly ‘Strayan Comedy Opera Satire, Schapelle The Musical. She now turns her considerable talent towards serious drama, skewering upper middle-class complacency and educated hypocrisy with such charm and bitter grace that it’s impossible not to be won over to its deeply thoughtful and darkly humorous brand of self-loathing.
Good Men presents us plainly with stories of hypocrisy and moral cowardice that are restrained in scale, minute in unrelenting detail, and terrifyingly, gut-wrenchingly familiar. A young man stares very carefully into his noodles at lunch, doing his best to ignore a co-worker at the table heaping racist vitriol on a woman working in reception behind her back. Someone meets a homeless woman living in a project who says her boyfriend’s threatened to kill her and asks if they’ll “Come back, won’t you? Check up on me?” and they never do. A corrupt politician reflects to an assistant on how they came to be the person they are now; an embezzler and a fraud.
The text lures us in by speaking to our guilty consciences with understanding, even friendship, and holds a wry mirror up to our penchant for inaction in the face of corruption, poverty, prejudice, and the other everyday horrors that we all encounter, and too frequently ignore. It builds to a climax with the escalation and expansion of its theme, then suddenly snaps back to focus on a small and saddeningly familiar bit of cruelty – a person laughing at someone caught in the rain. Its point, presented with a great deal of honest style, is clear: cruelty and callousness are systemic problems. In our souls as much as our society. “I hate all of the characters, and most of them are parts of me,” Roberts said when I spoke to her after the show. Well, me too; and I’m willing to bet that most of the audience would have felt this way. This is an excellent and disconcerting piece of writing.
Williams’ staging decisions offer up a plenty of humour, and plenty of dynamism. Two minute noodles go flying, rain is simulated with the use of a spray bottle followed by watering cans, and O’Grady literally crawls into the space underneath our seats to deliver the final monologue. The charm and whimsy and casual cruelty of the script finds its way gently to the surface through all of this activity, but the preoccupation with movement over feeling leaves the highs and lows of the text confined, for the most part, to the page. The writing is quietly volatile, and the performance was simply quiet. What intensity there was came from a repeated cacophony of lines from the piece repeated over each other by the actors, increasing in volume to a yell, competing to be heard. This ostentatious and widely used device might have been more effective if every other aspect of the production – direction and writing – wasn’t so innovative and deeply felt. In the end it had the effect of placing unneeded emphasis on two of the most innocuous moments of the show. The power of the piece was in its silences – but with the exception of the final moments of the show those silences felt sadly neglected.
Williams is an oddity among student directors in that she has a very coherent theatrical project informing her practice and dictating what sort of risks she takes. This project is broadly to do with challenging assumptions about audiences’ and actors’ interactions with space and with each other, and anyone who saw her production of The Chairs for Sydney Fringe will know that, when it comes to changing the shape of the space in which a show is experienced, she’s willing to be very daring indeed. With Good Men, Williams ventures on what feels like her most radical experiment yet, with the audience arranged in the centre and facing in three directions, each of us unable to see all of the action, yet surrounded by it, divided by our different fields of view, and yet brought together by them too.
Considering the show’s subject matter deals so baldly with our blind spots and moments of wilful ignorance, and our willingness not to see things that happen around us, the daring arrangement of the space certainly complemented the text. But the marriage of the two didn’t feel quite complete, and the galvanising effect of having our assumptions about our role as an audience challenged so baldly ran the risk of drowning out the text’s much more urgent challenge to our inclination towards hypocrisy and moral relativism. Considering how vividly and determinedly the text managed to articulate this challenge, it’s a pity that the project of the writing and the project of the production were not entirely compatible.
Both the script and the stagecraft of Good Men are daring, but while they complement one another they still feel like two distinct, though interwoven, pieces of work from two talented artists. This isn’t necessarily a failing of the piece, however, and we can rightly hope that it’s a sign of great things to come. The ambition of what Roberts, Williams, and their cast have produced was over reaching for the two months of part-time rehearsal they had. I can see a glorious future in which this show becomes a theatrical event of disturbing complexity and power, and we should be thankful that the inaugural production of such a brave script had levels of daring to match. It is precisely because of this daring that the show deserves, and requires, a longer period of development before we’ll see it really come into its own.
Photo Credit: Julia Robertson