The Great | Sydney Theatre Company

The Great | Sydney Theatre CompanyLeft - Liz Alexander and Ben Geurens. Cover - Nicholas Bell, Toby Schmitz and Alan Dukes. Photos - Heidrun Lohr

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‘Sex and the City’
opened in Sydney on Thursday. The film at Roadshow Cinemas and the stage version at Wharf 1 under the auspices of The STC.

The stage version, written by Tony McNamara under the title ‘The Great’ would probably, at least for David Stratton, be the preferred of the two.

Both deal with women learning to enjoy their sexuality and its congruent empowerment. It provides a lusty version of the theme underlying Jane Austen’s several stories. Set in St Petersburg, Russia during the reign of Catherine the Great it looks at Catherine’s opening of Russia to the enlightenment of the West. While no doubt impressed with Voltaire her reason for adopting French as the official language at court quite possibly was to avoid any further gaffes in translation following her equine faux pas. The joke at her expense it seems still has a good deal of mileage in it.

While it has an historical setting McNamara points out in his writer’s notes in the program (which may be proffered as one reason for having them) that it is not an historical account.

It is a lavish production in which the set at times threatens to overshadow the performance. There are two aspects of theatre that a well-healed theatre company can afford, lavish costumes and even more lavish sets. One only has to look at the season of Opera Australia. It will probably ever be the exclusive domain of those companies under state patronage and it is not necessarily synonymous with good theatre.

This production certainly makes the most of its resources in these areas with a visual feast that delights the senses and the imagination. The set, designed by Fiona Crombie and beautifully embellished by the lighting of Damien Cooper is almost as full of symbolism as the play itself. The costumes, designed by Tess Schofield leave you in no doubt as to the level of privilege this performance is being pampered with.

Pampering is rather at the heart of this play of the battle of the sexes. It juxtaposes the view of women as breeding pets to be amused by trivial games with a far more serious side. In that both Catherine II and Elizabeth I demonstrably shone by wresting rule of their countries from the most tenacious of male oligarchies.

The play itself, while set over an extraordinarily vibrant period and covering a large time zone has actually compressed in the issues it covers. Unfortunately it takes rather a long time in the covering. Most of it is related, as probably befits a discourse on sexual expression, to who gets to cover whom and at what price. Through it’s lengthy sweep however there is the marvellous music of Alan John and sound designed by Steve Francis.

In a nutshell it might be reduced to Polonius’s time worn phrase ‘To thine own self be true.’ In this case McNamara seems to be asserting that ‘The Great’, that is Catherine II of Russia, determined on a course of truth to country above truth to self. She was, after all, a princess. In this respect it draws a close parallel with that other much vaunted monarch, Elizabeth I, and the play seems to owes some of the exploration to that closely examined Queen. Her much quoted aphorism, ‘I may not be a lion but I am a lion’s cub and I have a lion’s heart’ could as well serve for Catherine replacing the lion motif with that of the bear. A point not lost in McNamara symbolism.

The direction of Peter Evans delivers a very precise and well paced, beautifully nuanced performance from a very strong cast. It includes Robin McLeavy as the young queen full of idealism and naïve enchantment who was to be rudely disillusioned in love braced over the back of a sofa. In thus fashion her lad of a husband, Peter, also The Great, serviced her as he dictated minutes on matters of state. Peter and later Catherine’s son, Didi are each distinctively portrayed by Toby Schmitz. McLeavy goes on to play Catherine’s headstrong daughter, Natalie in the second Act. Young Orlo, the man who was to be for Catherine what William Cecil was for Elizabeth I, and Plimtov, were each played by Matthew Moore. Her lover, the equivalent of Elizabeth’s hapless Robert Dudley was well described by Ben Geurens and the need to significantly differentiate it from the later portrayal of Val was obviated by the context. Nicholas Bell performed in the role of the Archbishop and the older ‘Orlo’ investing in the older man a latent reserve that convincingly took flight in unexpected passion.

Two performances of special note were those delivered by Alan Dukes in the dual roles of Velementov and General portraying in the first Act an effete infatuation with his queen that was both subtle and masterly. As Marial and later as Angeline, Catherine’s lady in waiting and confidant, Mandy McElhinney delivered a wonderfully droll and acerbic portrayal.

The play’s coming of age however waits for the arrival of the humping Queen herself in the person of Liz Alexander, every inch and every syllable ‘The Great’, in whom all Russia was to find a voice. It was an impeccable display of her craft. She is quoted as commenting in respect of the vicissitudes of fame, ‘That is what life is, you have to accept what you choose to do.’ The sentiment is almost a précis of McNamara’s The Great’. In her Evans found the epitome of his Queen, game, raunchy, salacious, enquiring, generous, responsible, contentious, responsive and loving. She gave it everything it called for and then some.

Some of the more celebrated aspects of her reign are touched on and explored briefly but through it all is Catherine’s appetite for carnality, a need to be in touch, as it were and to be touched. This play, rather like chess is very much a queen’s play. It’s full of climaxes although the dramatic ones don’t really achieve the gravity one might expect from such a turbulent scenario.

Nevertheless ‘The Great’ does explore the coming of age of women’s sexuality and some of the issues it raises. It also roundly affirms what women have always known and what it took Kinsey to establish through his research that sex means a hell of a lot more to them than to their more bestial partners.


Sydney Theatre Company presents
THE GREAT
A new play by Tony McNamara

Venue: Wharf 1, Sydney Theatre Company | pier 4, Hickson Road, Walsh Bay
Season: 5 June – 13 July
Twilights: Mondays 6.30pm until 23 June / Tuesdays 6.30pm from 1 July / Sundays 5pm from 6 July
Evenings: Tuesdays 8pm until 24 June; Wednesdays – Saturdays 8pm
Matinees: Wednesdays 1pm from 11 June; Saturdays 2pm
Night With Actors: Monday 23 June 6.30pm Post-show discussion with the cast and creative team
Tickets: $77 / $62 Concession Matinee $68 / $56 Concession
Bookings: STC Box Office (02) 9250 1777 | Ticketek 132 849 | sydneytheatre.com.au/great

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