Riflemind | Sydney Theatre CompanyLeft - Hugo Weaving. Cover - Jeremy Sims and Susie Porter

Events are moving so fast at the Sydney Theatre Company, we – the common people – are struggling to maintain adequate oxygen intake. Almost wiping the premiere of her own husband’s new play off the front page (in fairness, the reviews are still to appear) was news yesterday (Thursday 11 October) that Cate Blanchett has secured Georgio Armani as the company’s first ‘patron’.

We are talking some very expensive mutual hand-bagging here.

On the opening night of Andrew Upton’s new play, Riflemind, last Wednesday, Cate’s was a real handbag. Dressed down to near invisibility, Blanchett’s little number still captured envious whispers. As did her frames.

Next morning, the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald, boasted Armani’s latest acquisition: Cate herself lingering, appropriately, off his arm. Armani considers Blanchett to be the greatest actress of this era. Judy Dench aside (effectively an old bag now), who would disagree? I re-ran Elizabeth last week, in anticipation of the next episode, and who could disagree? Bob Dylan here we come. (Oh, and that wasn’t Heath Ledger in funny clothes picking up the Lion for Cate in Venice. I’ve sent those photos through to forensics: and it’s Cate again in drag. Okay, at first glance, they’re not her legs. But you can do wonders with make-up these days.)

Like a 19th century Parisian courtier, Armani has agreed to pick up a bunch of bills: not just for a whole lot of new frocks (his own), but also help bankroll the STC’s creative ambitions while Blanchett and Upton are at the helm. Here was I thinking our first lady would be spending next year pushing a wheelbarrow around the business-end of town, showing her ankles whenever required.

(I do smell a production of Camille in the air! Realistically, Blanchett would be optimal casting.)

I write as a fan, indeed a camp follower to the Upton-Blanchett twin thrones. Yes, there has been a note of scandal over their appointment to the artistic directorship of the STC from next year. After all, the position had not been exposed to public bidding; and I think that small nicety had to be run past lawyers. Also, what the heck were the qualifications of a suspiciously beautiful celebrity actress and a nervous emerging director/playwright?

Apart from the fact that some felt they had at least a right to pitch for the job, there are many reasons to anticipate that the appointment/s has much good in it.

Blanchett will bring a lot more than an address book to the job. People who have worked with her say she is most astute of mind (very Elizabeth 1st). And far too many are overlooking the fact that her working (and life) partner, Andrew Upton, has a theatrical mind as alive and buzzing as a beehive. 

Nor is it a cold call.

In this past year, Upton has worked alongside current Artistic Director, Robyn Nevin, learning the ropes. In Hedda Gabler, Blanchett reminded us that she could still act on stage.

Blanchett and Upton, together, took a deep breath and put their reputations in other areas of theatrical expertise on the line by directing a fascinating double bill: Reunion by David Mamet and Harold Pinter’s A Kind of Alaska. That not only took guts, but it ran up a flag that this was a team able come up with great ideas and follow them through.

My mentor, Michael Feingold, who reviews for New York’s Village Voice, noted the unique pairing of the plays. Yes it was a first; and in his opinion an inspired dramaturgical move. So, in their appointment, it appears we have at work both brains and brawn (la courage). There is also a likely multiplier effect in the conviviality of their shared artistic venturing.

This can all be put another way: the signs are promising. Let’s give the Upton/Blanchett team a chance. In the very least, not to cut them down, as we did with Peter Cousins’ Kookaburra just recently, before that company even had a chance stand up straight.

More can be said about what we might expect from the new artistic directors after tonight’s (Friday 12 October) STC 2008 Season Launch. For those who care about these things, brown-paper invites confirm the STC is going seriously green. That should make sense. Like colourful checks being the new black.


Now to where I am meant to have begun: a review of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s production of Andrew Upton’s new play, Riflemind. It’s the story of a once-famous rock band, of U2 standard, coming together for a weekend in a country house to decide whether to regroup and begin performing again. The more one thinks about the play, the better it gets. That is also its problem. Upton’s writing style is so weighted in subtext and sprinkled with allusion, some on opening night were left wondering if they had even seen a play at all.

Let’s start with the obviously good stuff. Seven truly outstanding performances: five men (Hugo Weaving, Jeremy Sims, Marton Csokas, Steve Rodgers and Ewen Leslie); and two women (Susan Prior and Susie Porter). On paper, you can’t get much better than that. And so it proves on stage. Separately and together, every performer delivers to the same exceptionally high standard. This is relishing stuff.

Hoffman brings an unfamiliar approach to the direction, and it’s very New York. The actors have been given much freedom to create their roles, so long as they dig deep enough into themselves to come up with something hot. Team playing, which is what Australians are good at, is lifted here to a new level, as it is backed up by an American emphasis on individual achievement. You want to be in this play? Well deliver or piss off!

There are two interwoven story lines at work. The first is the battle, essentially between the brothers John (Hugo Weaving) and Phil (Marton Csokas): not only over whether it’s worth putting the band back together, but also about what really happened the night John walked away from the band – at the peak of its fame. After years dishing a load of punk attitude to inflamed audiences, some crazed member of the audience decides to whack John back. He puts down his career mid-performance and walks off! Over and out!

There are myriad ‘industry’ moments, boozy fun, cut-and-thrust, and rock-band history in-jokes in the writing; and the inevitable question: ‘When is it time to give the game away’. There’s the Sid Vicious, Janice Joplin option – ‘short and bitter-sweet’; or the Lou Reed, Keith Richards choice – ‘keep on keeping on’.

While this question is pursued at length thematically, the play is very short on conventional argument. Here lies the keynote to writer Andrew Upton’s unusual and still evolving style. He is way out there on the edge, the technique is unfamiliar and, at this point in his career, no doubt disconcerting for some members of the audience.

It is easy to feel that not enough is actually be said in plain enough English by the characters, and scenes (especially in the first act) are left off sometimes just moments before you think the vital point is about to be made. More than a few on opening night were quite put off.

As mentioned above, much of the drama lies in the subtext. And we would have had a major disaster on our hands if the production had not been so well directed and cast.

In Upton’s last play, Hanging Man, which I greatly liked, one felt a horizontal line had been drawn between the almost David Williamson-like super-realism of the surface action and the looming subtext surging, like waves off Swansea, underneath. If you did not pick up on the lower layer, you could be forgiven for thinking Hanging Man was a slight play. So for those who missed the point: that play wasn’t only about a famous painting, it was also about the medical condition of Australia’s cultural soul.

In Riflemind (the name of the famous band), surface dialogue and subtext, are more intimately inter-twined. Not that Upton makes it easy. His dialogue switches when least expected from gunfire burst between characters of scrappy idiosyncratic vernacular to long, dense, intensely poetic soliloquies – as cryptic at times as the language of dreams.

Well and good. So far, it’s up to the audience to lift its game. But one also gets the impression that, while writing, Upton feels more than he actually gets down on the page. Or he just tries a little bit too hard not to be obvious. To what extent is an audience expected to work?

The evidence is this. The production’s top-notch cast has had weeks with the play and they adore it. To them, having spent time with it, all the many dots joins up. The more I think about the play, the more I agree.

But when should a writer of such high ambition, step back from the edge, to ensure he is carrying his audience with him?

I feel a bit like I am representing both prosecution and defence here at the same time. But it has to be said, without so many weeks to pour over the text, or the years in the theatre I have enjoyed, it would be difficult for many to walk away from the final scenes of Riflemind in any way confident they have understood what has actually happened to the characters over these past few days in the house.

The last two scenes are huge and magnificent in concept. The two brothers, who led the band, work through their difficulties which go all the way back to childhood. And, equally crucial, John and his skittish wife, Lyn (Susan Prior), in whose country pile the play is set, also come to an even more vital deal.

This second strand of the narrative, I have not expanded on as yet. Lyn (a brilliant Susan Prior) presents herself to the helicopter-arriving ex-celebrity visitors, as a yoga-breathing muesli-munching innocent.

John is the one who makes it clear that times have changed and ‘no drugs are to be taken’ in this house. Of course his brother pays no notice; but that point is made subtly.

At the time, we naturally presume John’s reference is to his own past and that of members of the band. But as the weekend unfolds, we discover Lyn has her own history, and the Puritan lines on which this country house is run is more for her protection than that of John’s. Or indeed their marriage?

As the canny band manager, Sam (superbly characterised by Jeremy Sims) works out before anyone else: Lynn has more to lose than anyone else in John going back on the road. Despite the fact that everyone else (himself included) knows John is literally dying of boredom and artistic suppression, it is Lynn of all people at risk of losing hold on staying alive if her husband chooses to walk back out into the rock-star spotlight.

The last scene in the play – between Lynn and John – is gobsmacking in its resolution. But only if you have been following what is going on as they negotiate their way through the dead-end future in which they find themselves trapped.

In the greatest of ironies, Lynn needs to remain imprisoned – away from the myriad dangers of reality – to survive at all. But it is clearly killing John, whose artistic spark still flickers glimly. He has to make a life-death choice: a ‘her or me?’ To find out where that leaves Lyn, you will have to see the play.

The usual courtesies go to production folk: setting by Richard Roberts, costumes by Tess Schofield, lights by Damien Cooper, sound by Max Lyandvert. Something good could easily be said of each and every contribution.

But ultimately, in this review, the play’s the thing. After two days at the computer thinking it through, I am now standing with the actors: the play is great. Riflemind is hot. That it is not to say it’s perfect. And audiences should not feel the fault is theirs, if they emerge at the end not so much unsettled by, but simply unsure of what to make of the experience.

To end, as I began, with celebrity. It is important to remember that this is only Andrew Upton’s second full-length work for the stage. Nor should he be punished for pushing himself to the limit of his writing abilities. Or that he has married into fame.

In not entirely living up to his own high ambitions, on this occasion, he may well pay a price. But who in the past that was ever any good has not? Some who get to see this play will not like it. More accurately, they will not get it. And, to underline the point: it won’t be their fault.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, in Andrew Upton, we have the makings of an exceptionally gifted playwright. Riflemind does fire real bullets, even if a few too many tend to whistle past.

Sydney Theatre Company presents
By Andrew Upton

Venue: Wharf 1, Sydney Theatre Company
Dates: 10 October – 8 December 2007
Times:  Mondays 15, 22, 29 October and 5 November at 6:30pm, Tuesdays – Saturdays 8pm, Sundays 18, 25 November and 2, 8 December at 5pm
Matinees: Wednesdays 1pm (except 31 October), Saturdays 2pm
Price: $73/$60 concession Matinee $65/$54 concession
Bookings: (02) 9250 1777 / sydneytheatre.com.au    

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