Sandro Colarelli as Xavier. Photo - Justine Walpole.
It's all about him. And it's all about them – John Howard, Kevin Rudd, the legal fraternity, Christian fundamentalists, gays and straights, Big Brother, Corey Worthington, Kate Bush, the cult of celebrity generally, manipulative political machine men, gullible voters...
But mostly, obviously, The Narcissist is all about him. That is, Xavier, a ruthless political operative, a self-absorbed, 40-something, commitment-phobic gay man in Brisbane, the proud poster child for a generation of self-seeking, self-serving, self-loving, self-loathing, selfish individuals.
Brisbane playwright Stephen Carleton's script is a fable on individualism in society. It was a criticism often leveled at John Howard's Australia; the Government promoted a divide and conquer strategy of wedge politics and the manipulation of personal prejudice for political gain. And yet, sadly, in updating the script for this return season of the play at La Boite's Roundhouse Theatre, Carleton found things weren't all that different under Ruddism.
“Eighteen months later, in the early days of the Rudd era, I discover that not much needs to be updated in terms of the play's spin-focused approach to sexual and cultural politics,” Carleton writes in the show program.
The Narcissist has been La Boite's biggest success to date. It was clearly the best play from its 2007 season, with the biggest ideas. So much so the production, cast and all, is heading to the Opera House in Sydney for a season with the Sydney Theatre Company.
This is a piece very much of its place (Xavier lives in Brisbane's inner-city trendy gay haven of New Farm), and very much of its time. The amended script heralds the political death of John Howard and the pop cultural demise of Big Brother. The script is a little tighter, too. Xavier's apartment, a set designed by Greg Clark, makes better use of the three-sided stage (fittingly complete with Andy Warhol-inspired posing portraits of the main antagonist).
But the ideas haven't changed, still ripe for satire despite the shifted political sands. After the death of his MP master, Xavier is now charged with getting a fundamentalist Christian from a cult-like anti-church (it meets at the local shopping centre) elected as Labor's next sitting member. For Xavier, spouting political weasel words and seemingly meaning them, it's all about winning, no matter the candidate or the cost.
Best friend Bronwyn is the ultimate fag hag, an Ab Fab-era interior design columnist with The Courier Mail, fabulously 40-something (she insists), soused and sassy with a sharp tongue. But while Bronwyn is worried time is ticking by in the search for lasting love, Xavier is a strictly-one-night-only man.
That is until they make the bet: the first to bag a man before New Year's Eve wins a case of champagne and an all-expenses-paid trip to Port Douglas. Bronwyn sets her sights on Satchel, Xavier's sexually-ambiguous blond himbo housemate, while Xavier crafts a plan to win back his university sweetheart hunk Jesse, despite him announcing his impending nuptials to the conservative Bible-basher Y'landah.
These characters are instantly recognisable archetypes that allow Xavier, in bitchy asides and spotlighted monologues, to comment on our obsessions with beauty and youth (“gay men are like dogs,” he says, “they age seven years for every one”), with fame and status (Satchel devotes his life to auditioning for Big Brother while competing for the most Facebook friends), and with material stuff over any real human connection (Satchel is particularly taken with the chocolate throw rug Bronwyn bestows on him). Not to mention 'family values', left-v-right politics, law in society, the commercialisation of religion, homophobia, immigration, reconciliation...
There's targets everywhere, and Carleton can't hope to hit them all. Particularly with the character of Y'landah (those “phonetically correct but nevertheless incorrectly spelt” celebrity-inspired names are pilloried, too), who is an unconvincing mess of religious happy-clapping, bigoted social conservative, ruthless lawyer, habitual liar and all-round psychologically-disturbed nutter. Local graduate Judy Hainsworth does her best with a character that lacks the familiarity of the others. Meanwhile, the character of Jesse (James Stewart, in the only cast change from the original production) glosses over his amazing conversion to God-bothering hetrosexual only to long for the arms of Xavier once more.
Where it really works is with Bronwyn, played with gay abandon by Andrea Moor, as a portrait of an older woman waking up to the realisation she really did have it all without having anything. With Satchel (scene-stealer Jonathan Brand), who may well be just as vapid as the times in which he lives. And particularly with Xavier (Sandro Collarelli, who balances the humour with a genuine pathos), who wrestles with the idea of a real relationship with the man he loves only to let his own selfishness defeat him.
It's a pretty dark and damning tale, really, under Rudd as much as Howard, but wrapped in enough silliness and slapstick to keep the bus-full of giggling high school students in a packed audience amused throughout. Which is really the whole point.
A La Boite Theatre Company Commission
by Stephen Carleton
Venue: Roundhouse Theatre, Musk Ave. Kelvin Grove Urban Village
Preview: 5 & 6 August
Season: 7 – 22 August
Times: Tues & Wed 6.30pm, Thurs-Sat 8pm
Bookings: laboite.com.au or 3007 8600
THE NARCISSIST ON TOUR
Sydney Theatre Company: Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, Sydney
28 August – 4 October
Merrigong Theatre Company: Illawara Performing Arts Centre, Wollongong
21 – 25 October
Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre: Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre
28 October – 1 November
Jetty Memorial Theatre: Coffs Harbour
2 – 5 December