"No man can poison justice, no matter how high". Our Australian way of life depends entirely on these just terms.
After a relatively slow start getting into the theatre; a slightly impatient audience were wondering if this play Conspiracy, was ever going to live up to expectations of a good Australian drama about a real hero, or just a fashionably coated rogue.
Lionel Murphy's story or better still his scrambling battle to achieve honourable change in the Australian courts, was what retired Chief Sub-Editor at the Melbourne Herald, John Kiely, hoped this audience would come to terms with in his new play.
Immediately on entering the theatre space, we were approached by a screeching voice; a narrator and so it seemed instructor who advised us of our responsibility tonight. We were the jury in a case about a man's fight for freedom, or perhaps an entire nation's fight for progression.
Walking past the stage and looking for seats, we were in the wood grained court room and had a firsthand glimpse into the world we were about to live in for the next hour or so.
Live in it we did and responsibility was etched on our very seat. It was serious: here was an Australian story and here were characters that came to life with retro sparkling furniture and an air of frustration as the back drop.
A couple of early monologues set the stage: debates about humanity, politics and the position of society back in the 70's were thrust our way. There were bickering journalists trying to capture what they believed was the truth and then there was Kevin Summers (Lionel Murphy), who's intensity and respectability were imminent. To make a story believable there has to be just enough interaction with the audience and an allowance of free will to admire the space.
The space became a revolving whirlwind of courtroom banter and dinner escapades. The script was thrown our way and only ones alert were allowed full immersion into its technical complexity. In and out, in and out – we were held there until the play completely opened up with a stillness; a real court room excavated by witty acting and lawyers who knew how to determine reasonable doubt. One was truly a jury member now, embellished in this serious affair and its obvious relevance today, still a lingering factor.
Whoever said that jury duty was a drag? Tonight we were getting an education; a well constructed master class into the judicial system and a deliberate decision had to be forged.
Lionel Murphy hated the word "mate" and thought it to be insincere and preferred friend instead. He said things about Aboriginal rights at dinner parties, was a bastion for divorce and with that made enemies along the way from the Church to businesses.
Murphy was accused of falsifying a case against lifelong friend and colleague Morgan Ryan and it almost became a question of; can human friendship really exist within these rigid sectors – and so was the beginning of "a political witch hunt". They all had something in common. The lawyers who were witty and determined, the journalists who were funny but clinical and of course Murphy who was a High Court judge, a husband and a man who would entertain his guests, enjoy an occasional red wine and well, just share.
Maybe that was his downfall; perhaps the rapacious satire was for self glory. It really didn't matter. What did matter was the fact that Australian society was at a crossroads and Murphy wanted us to make our own minds up. Have real opinions away from the unnatural setting of courtrooms and the busy desks of insolent journalists, churning out mere silhouettes of the truth.
The cunning journalists who were present in every scene but remained clandestine behind their physical newspapers and the lawyers who were fighting to reveal a truth, exposed reconciliation with their internal struggles. They all had a job to do but they also had legitimate human beliefs.
To increase the heart beat of this play our narrator, a frivolous protagonist, would interrupt and provide that balance when things seemed almost ungraspable. Almost Mel Brooks, in its device of a character who would establish himself on different parity to a scene.
The use of lighting, a torch at times kept facing our way and changed the mood. Interrogation, along with the need to make up our minds about this case was brilliantly achieved.
Peta Coy, the director, who has also had success with choreography with" Don’s Party (2006) and "Unforeseen Circumstances of a Patriotic Act" (VCA), excellently kept to her long standing tradition with the Red Stitch Theatre on the elements of movement. The floor seemed to be there filled with characterizations one minute and the next there was solemn silence, chaotic lighting and of course human despair.
A flawless script: one that implanted eight actors into a history of relevance and kept them there. It developed into a sort of record of evidence, evidence that gradually learned to breathe, through the magic of great composition; art and ideology.
Robin Usher's piece in the Age "Murphy's law shaped our Lives" (28/6/011) really raises many questions about where our loyalties should lie. Questions like who are our real saints in this country come to mind. Are they the sports people whom we seem to worship, or should our heroes be the ones that "crush through conventions" and permit a civilized cornerstone to democratic Australia?
The lights transformed into a dimmer, almost silvery shadow just before the end and these characters who we had become very familiar with, came out together to reveal – with caution – a message at the wake of Lionel Murphy. Away from all the policies and masculine rigidity; there we were a hung jury – or maybe not.
Kiely (writer) and Coy (director), worked together marvellously to bring a cast of strong Australian acting and to dismantle political agendas, notions of tall poppy syndrome and the onslaught of human struggle, in this, an encapsulating hearty, alive production.
La Mama presents
by John Kiely
Directed by Peta Coy
Venue: La Mama Courthouse, 349 Drummond Street Carlton
Dates: June 30 – July 17, 2011
Times: Wed, Sun 6:30pm | Thu, Fri, Sat 8pm
Tickets: $25 Full | $15 Concession