The Gift | Melbourne Theatre CompanyLeft – Richard Piper and Heather Bolton. Cover – Richard Piper and Elizabeth Debicki. Photos – Jeff Busby

It’s paradise, an aspirant middle class idea of paradise at least. An exotic locale in a verdant setting, a place with no name that could be absolutely anywhere or nowhere, a hotel in a mythic land with a panoramic view of the ocean, a hotel replete with all the modern accoutrements afforded by five-star travel, expensive restaurants, expensive cocktail bars, expensive yachting expeditions.

Sadie (Heather Bolton) and Ed (Richard Piper) look at home in the hotel and appear rather chuffed with their salubrious surrounds. As we listen to them chit chattering away mindlessly about nouvelle cuisine, middle class manners and middle-age pleasantries, we understand these are people, who, despite surface appearances, despite the veneer of material prosperity, are inconsolably lost in this paradise, utterly bereft of spirit.

Their paradise is all perfect Vogue Living, perfect white polished surfaces, perfect panoramas and perfect Ragout of Otter. It’s peopled by silvering couples who, just like Sadie and Ed are blindsided by perfect wealth, greed and self-pity to the luminosity and imperfect tapestry of life, instead they are stone-like, inert and heavy in heart as they revel in their status and worldly success.

Theirs are conversations steeped in ennui, subtly hinting at unlived lives, beautiful paradoxes, potentialities and poetry simmering below the surface never to see the light of day. Outside, it’s fecund, nature is bountiful. A golden sunset fades to an inky starry night illuminated by a full moon, the ocean glinting. It’s mystical, dark, eternal.

Sadie and Ed are quite nervous, embarrassed and envious as they observe a young couple seated nearby, Martin (Matt Dyktynski) and Chloe (Elizabeth Debicki), at a table just out of earshot and look somewhat conspicuous in this hotel. Their conversation appears inflected by Eros, their bodies rapturous, dancing together at the table enjoying an evening infinitely more epicurean than theirs.

The couples meet and we learn that while Sadie and Ed can easily afford such an opulent sojourn, Martin and Chloe cannot, and that they are in this paradise by the good grace of a winning two dollar raffle ticket purchased from a charity dedicated to Cerebral Palsy.

We discover that Martin and Chloe enjoy life’s simple pleasures, they observe life’s small offerings. Despite significant differences in age, background, world view and economic status the two couples strike an instant accord as the raptures of Martin and Chloe intoxicate Sadie and Ed. Together, this party of four fully inhabit the present and unconditionally embrace the now.

Later, after dinner in the hotel cocktail bar with libations of lively elixir pouring forth we learn intimate details about each of the four characters; their hopes, dreams, trials and the anxieties. There is a terrific scene of shared enthusiasm when the party bonds on a deeper level, music always the great leveler, uniting them, four strangers no more, in turn they are transformed, a Quaternity in Jazz.

The first act of the play is largely narrated by Sadie, the dutiful albeit frustrated wife to Ed the wealthy businessman – the beacon in the field of wood machinery. Sadie is also the character whose cascading cadences of language and engaging lightness, illuminating truths secreted here, there and everywhere, infects the party of four. As the truth seeker, the philosopher, Sadie demonstrates a natural charm that brings people closer together providing a sense of intimate relatedness.

In this way Sadie shares a deeper, albeit tenuous connection, to Martin the installation conceptual artist whose truth seeking abilities, as yet a little less formed, manifest these very same qualities and cadences in his art installations. It is Martin’s partner Chloe, a talented art writer who so deftly reports on the philosophical nuances of Martin’s works. According to Chloe, perhaps keen to win the approval of the wealthy couple announces that Martin is a genius, an artist on the brink of worldy success.

Ultimately, it is the monstrous stories each of these characters shares that captivates us most of all, tapping into and satisfying that great human need we have for story on a mythic scale. Murray-Smith is mindful of the ancient myths, the monstrous is always tempered by lightness, according to Ed, Sadie is his better half, according to Sadie, she is Ed’s best three quarters. Murray-Smith’s selected and thoughtful words tumble like a joyride with Persephone.

As the elixir flows the conversations turns from worldly successes; Ed’s biography in particular, to matters of art and friendship. The recalcitrant Martin is finally put to task, placed in the spotlight by the bacchanalian brood and questioned about his latest project, an installation comprising a glass box filled with a mystical vapour produced by a trick of light technology.

Vapour – it’s a powerful word. It is Martin’s “idea of art” – his imaginary/imagined ”vapour in a glass box” – that becomes the leitmotif of the play, an extraordinary image.

For this reviewer, the characters discussing vapour was so evocative and satisfying. The meaning of vapour, etymologically speaking at least, refers to the exhalation of breath, where the body’s breathe turns to steam. In Zen meditation terms it is in also in the exhalation of breath where meaning resides. In exhalation, we cease to attach to things so strongly, we cut off the mind road, we detach not because these are things which are not worthy, but when we are full of attachments, there is too little of us, our truth, so are unable to discern between things or love them fully.

Vapour is an ancient term, in Greek myth at Charon’s Cave poisonous vapours emanated at its entrance, a cave believed to be the portal to Hades the Greek underworld. Or to miasma theory by way of another example, poisonous vapours – since disproved by science – once believed to cause all sorts of diseases and conditions from Cholera to Chlamydia to the Black Death. Whatever meaning it carries, vapour is always a portent for death.

At the risk of sounding mystical, it is in the character’s discussions and disagreements about the vapours contained in the glass box where art and friendship meet, ultimately it is also in this realm where the impossible becomes possible. Joanna Murray-Smith's dialogue about art feels seemless, her vivid use of language and detail in The Gift permeates us as a vapour might or even as the idea of a vapour might; intoxicating us, disturbing us, entrancing us, and eventually, long after the curtain falls, awakening us.

Historically, theatre and visual art have been long entwined, the veil between images and words, delightfully transparent. More recently, somehow, somewhere, a great gulf has formed between them, the veil (the curtain) has coarsened. So much so that to see a major stage play today like this, one dedicated so palpably to the consolations of art and artfulness, at times seems alien at best, unimaginable at worst. If we have forgotten this beautiful entwinement playwright Joanna Murray-Smith alerts us to it once again with an entertaining narrative on a mythic scale. A delightful and unnerving meditation on art and friendship is The Gift.

Melbourne Theatre Company presents
The Gift
by Joanna Murray-Smith

Director Maria Aitken

Venue: The MTC Theatre, Sumner | 140 Southbank Boulevard, Melbourne
Dates: 28 May to 9 July, 2011
Tickets: from $61.10 ($30 Under 30s)
Bookings: | 8688 0888

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