Bille Brown is considered Queensland acting royalty. He has tread the boards here and in England, winning accolades for his Shakespearean performances. On screen, he is almost as prolific a presence in Australian cinema as Bryan Brown and Bill Hunter. The Queensland Theatre Company even etched his name onto its newest performance space, the Bille Brown Studio, in tribute of one of its most famous alumni.
Which is the only conceivable reason why the company let Brown stage his theatrical disaster, The School of Arts. It was a monumental mistake. In pandering to Brown’s vanity it robs the audience of the two and a half hours of their lives they will never get back.
It would be easy to put the awkwardly stiff and dizzyingly incomprehensible opening night performance down to a lack of rehearsal. That two actors were forced to stiltedly read from the script on stage, thanks to a cast reshuffle to replace an actor who had fallen off stage the night before, certainly added to the dummy run vibe.
The fall should have been an omen heeded.
Because it is not under-development that makes this such a marathon sufferance. It is a script that tackles too many issues and holds none of them down, with direction from Michael Gow that makes it all look unintendedly chaotic. It is a vaudeville farce neither witty nor engaging; a portrait of a time and place too abstract to recognise; a parable on race relations that teaches us nothing and reminds us of little.
It is 1967, in small-town Queensland, the sort of quaint country backwater scriptwriters use to justify oddballs and loveable simpletons. Brown’s Bronson Savage leads a travelling theatre troupe putting on a disastrous production of Hamlet (and the irony isn’t lost). A modernist twist has the cast using pistols, not swords, but somebody replaced the blanks with real bullets. Savage is wounded and carted off to hospital, leaving his fellow players to mix with the locals and uncover family secrets. Mystery, drama and hilarity supposedly ensue.
The exact chain of narrative and characterisation, I can’t be sure. We have Savage’s current and former long-suffering lovers (Christine Amor and Sally McKenzie), the young Africa-born thespian and vamp (Sophia Emberson-Bain), and the seemingly-kindly vicar-with-a-secret (and just what attracted musical star and familiar TV face Ian Stenlake to the role really is a mystery). The scandalous mixed marriage of Jack and Irene Killoran (Peter Marshall replacing Joss McWilliam and Paula Nazarski) cares for Irene’s half-cast child Patrick (played strangely retarded by overawed debutant Andrew Legg), who is struggling with identity against the background of the referendum to include indigenous people in the national census.
Brown calls it a tribute to a cultural time that inspired him and many other artists. But despite the clever stage design of Anna Borghesi, the story never manages to evoke the memories of the bygone era it tries so desperately hard to create. (Poor sound volume doesn't help - when will technicians learn the Playhouse is too big for drama without amplification?) More damningly, a play meant to tell Queensland’s story in its 150th year (the production is set to tour regional areas in August) is too convoluted, its characters too transparent, to celebrate the movement or the people involved. And certainly not the acclaimed playwright.
Brown’s play reeks of a script that had too many ideas forced into it by too many stakeholders. The result is an abominable mess that shames the company and its fine players.
I don’t say it lightly. But Brown’s School simply doesn’t deserve your attendance.
Queensland Theatre Company presents
The School of Arts
by Bille Brown
Director Michael Gow
Venue: Playhouse, QPAC
Dates: 13 July – 1 August 2009
Duration: 2 hours 40 minutes (incl Interval)
Tickets: $40 - $63, Under 30: $30