Grace, a theatre piece devised by the English philosopher AC Grayling and theatre director Mick Gordon, is one of the MTC’s most interesting productions for some time. An academic fiercely opposed to religion and its harmful influence, Grace is married to the loose-limbed, vaguely Jewish Tony. Both are startled to discover their son Tom has decided to become an Anglican priest, also something of a surprise to his girlfriend Ruth. Later on, one of the characters is killed, seemingly by religious fanatics in some unspecified riot, and the play’s last scenes deal with the grief, rage and sorrow of those remaining.
The play contains some tightly written scenes, usually aria-like monologues by each character, finely, even brilliantly, played by the four actors. Noni Hazlehurst gives a firm, accurate portrayal of the blunt, belligerent Grace, her strong and flexible voice easily reaching all parts of the audience. This could not, unfortunately, be said of the other performers whose playing front meant much essential dialogue was lost on many audience members. (The staging, in fact, is often somewhat stilted and uni-directional). Brian Lipson (Tony) plays a sympathetic second violin to Grace, but some imperative to be ‘light and entertaining’ robs this role of depth.
Their son Tom (Grant Cartwright), in many ways the play’s pivotal role, remains something of an enigma. Cartwright is also inclined to employ a kind of ringing rhetoric with this character’s already sanctimonious lines, and sincerity, hesitation, believability suffer in consequence. How, after all, did the son of a formidably anti-religious mother and an amiable, rather casual participant Jew turn out to be interested in becoming a priest, specifically Anglican? We are not told. The play’s origins as a discussion piece, or theatre-essay, as Gordon calls it, mean it can seem to cover religions, centuries, numerous profound philosophical and spiritual questions with easy neutrality, not to say some facile generalisations.
Characteristic of Grace’s sometimes erratic dramatic method is that Tom’s girl-friend Ruth (well–played by Leah Vandenberg) is given, almost in the last scene, a passionate speech in which her mother’s suicide is described at length. At this late stage, a large body of new material, which there is little time to comprehend or digest, is presented to the patient, puzzled audience.
If the narrative structure seems unnecessarily complex, the time sequence often bewildering, the production also has at times a jocose, shame-faced air, as if it did not want to be caught being too serious. So images from Alice in Wonderland, an incredible dancing scene, odd jokes about Canada, a frequent feeling the actors must rush things along and jolly them up, all these things not merely interrupt but actually wreck the gravity and profundity the play claims as its territory, and would otherwise be its principal attraction.
All that said, when the sincere, substantial and extremely serious issues at the heart of this piece are allowed, unhindered, to appear, principally in the monologues, Grace provides some of the best acting and most thoughtful theatre Melbourne has seen for a long time. The warm response by the first night audience was well deserved.
Melbourne Theatre Company
by Mick Gordon and AC Grayling
Directed by Marion Potts
Venue: the Arts Centre, Fairfax Studio
Dates: 2 January to 14 February
Times: Monday and Tuesday: 6.30pm
Wednesday: 1pm and 8pm
Thursday and Friday: 8pm
Saturday: 4pm and 8.30pm
Bookings: Ticketmaster 1300 723 038 or www.mtc.com.au