Though SUDS’ latest play is earnest in its attempt to offer insight into the persistence of sexism and misogyny in Australia, poor characterisation and AV decisions weigh down its execution.
For a play written in the early 1990s, Brilliant Lies’ plot is uncannily realistic and believable by today’s standards. Directed by Eugene Lynch and produced by Maggie Liuzzi, young office worker Susy (Charlotte Robathan) brings a case of unfair dismissal and sexual harassment against her boss, married family man Gary (Tom Crotty). Asking for $40,000 to settle the case, the 2-hour performance unravels the complicated web of deception, abuse, and manipulation that has led Susy and Gary to this moment, taking the audience through Susy’s complicated family life and Gary’s toxic male bravado and womanising. Written by Australian great David Williamson, the audience is constantly forced to second-guess their assumptions about each character, making for exciting theatre.
If only the acting could match this. Each actor’s performance seems dictated by the ability of the group they are performing with, making the play move from strength to weakness constantly. This is seen in moments with Susy’s family, where the lack of reaction and weak pacing between Susy, her Christian brother Paul (Tom Clarke), and lesbian sister Katy (Coco Frohlich) causes much-needed punchlines to be missed and crucial character arcs to be underplayed. In a sophisticated play, drawing on each character’s past to inform their decisions in the present, the opportunities for big shocks and reveals for Katy and Susy (whose British accent is out of place amidst a sea of Australian voices) are lost.
The substantial differences in physicality between Gary and his business partner Vince (Campbell McLauchlan) made for a compromise in audience connection, with many lines often delivered angrily or shouted. Intending to explore the social issues in Australian society, the group performances often leave the audience underwhelmed, despite standout performances from McLauchlan and John Kennedy (who plays Susy’s manipulative father Brian). McLauchlan’s acting is raw and heartfelt, while Kennedy is able to consistently nail the wit and timing of his character’s ramblings. Nevertheless, the cast make a strong attempt at tackling what are very challenging issues in Australian society.
AV Designer Sarah Jasem’s attempt to contextualise the play in the 1990s also flounders. A brilliant stage design separates the audience into 2 groups on opposite sides of Cellar, who view the action through thin black mesh to cleverly symbolise the distinction between the play’s 1990s context and our 2018 one. On this mesh, adverts from the ‘90s and clips of cities from this time play between set changes to reinforce this. Yet, they quickly lose their novel entertainment value; particularly when the light of the video projector from behind clashes with its grainy display before us. This lasts for the entire first half and briefly the second.
The ambitious rendering of the play’s climatic scene fell flat; Susy’s explicit recounting of Gary’s sexual abuse before him, Marion, Kate and Vince at their conciliation was projected as words rather than spoken as dialogue. This diminution of catharsis seemed questionable—this is what the audience had been anxious to witness, what the play had been building up to. Why waste it by projecting the scene’s lines, that were being performed anyway? Why make the audience imagine how the scene would physically play out? The scene certainly lost some of it poignancy because of it.
Ultimately, Williamson’s Brilliant Lies gave SUDS a strong plot and script with which to create a special social commentary on Australian attitudes. Despite the incredible staging and moving performances of some of its actors, an opportunity has been missed. The actors don’t dig deep enough into their roles, the group dynamic varies, and the experimental AV is more distracting than beneficial.
See for yourself, Brilliant Lies plays in the Cellar Theatre until May 26.
*A previous version of this article misnamed the businessmen characters and respective actors, and has since been updated.