The title says it all. The Blind Giant is Dancing conjures an image of an enormous, unwieldy, dangerous and mischievous creature, set to cause havoc. Is the giant capitalism or is it the self doubt in us that drives the need for approbation and power, whatever the cost?
There aren’t many plays about the dismantling of the Australian manufacturing industry. Written thirty years ago, Sewell’s play is a prescient shout out about what was to come as we now witness the final shutting down of the Australian car industry.
It is set in the 1980s – a time of intense infighting between the hard right of the Labor party and the idealistic left (remember the Peter Baldwin bashing?). The world is on the brink of major change as the forces of globalisation are taking hold.
This production runs just under three hours, including two short intervals, but it moves at such an exhilarating pace that it doesn’t feel long at all. It is a grand production, with a cast of eleven, full of fascinating and lengthy political discussions about politics, society, sexual politics, the environment, families, ideologies, value systems, corruption, trust and betrayal.
I didn’t realise how much I’d missed watching a Stephen Sewell play until I saw this wonderful production. This is a gripping human drama, but it is also a play bursting with ideas. Sewell’s intelligence, his fierceness, his complete confidence in working through complex arguments, like Michael Frayne and David Hare, make his work so exciting to watch.
Sewell’s play is both deeply political and deeply personal. A major theme is the evolutionary psychology that drives individuals: the inevitability of being seduced by the allure of power. Allen Fitzgerald (Dan Spielman), a brilliant Marxist economist, starts out pure and becomes as corrupt as the dealmakers he despises – just like the pigs in Animal Farm.
This play demonstrates how the personal is political. It is the personal situation that drives the tortured soul at its centre that drives this play forward. Right from the beginning Dan Spielman’s Fitzgerald carries a raging anger, demons that go back to childhood. It informs everything – his rigid idealism, his jaundiced view of other people, his relationship with his wife, his role in politics. Bullied as a child, he doesn’t think much of himself and so, while his ideology defines him, it is his integrity that gives him self worth.
Spielman is terrific as a fragile man who has struggled with his own sense of goodness and who desperately wants to believe in something. After a failed attempt at priesthood, he has swapped his faith for Marxist ideology. His moral framework however remains firmly Old Testament, based upon sin, shame, temptation, damnation and revenge. He is eventually undone by a single relatively minor political compromise. Once he feels tainted it opens the floodgates and he becomes the man he has always feared himself to be.
Yael Stone’s Louise Kraus, Fitzgerald’s wife, is all emotion, self righteousness and minimal insight, which is absolutely perfect. Kraus is consumed by her own driving need for independence so she can avoid the insanity that afflicted her mother, which had been brought on by domestic powerlessness. Stone makes her emotional immaturity understandable and forgivable. Kraus declares her love for Fitzgerald again and again, but she seems to have no interest in understanding him or really loving him.
She is quite happy to show off her contempt for anyone who doesn’t share her values.
Six years into her marriage and she is still acting like a petulant, argumentative adolescent at a Fitzgerald family BBQ in Port Kembla. “Are you incapable of accepting other people’s generosity without spitting in their faces?” Fitzgerald later asks Kraus.
She is impressed by her husband’s brilliance but with no idea how vulnerable he is and no understanding of the effects her cruel deceits have upon him. Her lack of genuine regard for Fitzgerald shows how easy it is to lose something if you don’t take the trouble to truly value and care for it. Every scene between the two is like watching two people speak entirely different languages. Nothing that is said is understood by the other which is met by mounting confusion and anger.
Geoff Morrell is marvellous as Michael Wells, the dodgy Labor numbers man, lapping up the financial benefits and unafraid of using a bit of muscle to keep the rank and file meek.
The scenes between Fitzgerald and financial journalist, Rose Draper are written and directed like pure Raymond Chandler. Zahra Newman’s femme fatale Draper uses every trick in the book to heighten the intrigue of the plot as she toys with Fitzgerald. Eamon Flack pointedly choreographs these scenes with an ironic nod to the Noir genre.
Eamon Flack does some of his best work in the scenes between Fitzgerald and his parents. They embody the parochial suburban values of the 1950s with Genevieve Lemon playing Mum, Eileen and Russell Kiefel playing Dad, Doug. It initially seems like the BBQ scene will serve as a little light relief, but in fact it is one of the most excoriating scenes in the play. Doug is a macho, patriarchal, anti-union racist who has dominated and bullied his family throughout their lives; who thinks he is his own man but who has been exploited as a factory worker his entire life. The tête-à-tête between Doug and Allen is stunning: Allen standing with his chest puffed up to show Dad how manly he is and at the same time behaving so abjectly towards him.
Dale Ferguson’s set is pared back to the walls with a freestanding screen partially blocking off the back third of the stage. Unlit, it looks like prison bars, but each vertical bar is covered with pin lights that work in all sorts of ways. This brilliant, versatile construction acts first as a transparent screen, then an opaque one. It flashes up words to set the scene, then becomes a dazzling wall of light. Similarly, Steve Toulmin’s soundscape is spare, but bold and dramatic, reinforcing the action scene by scene.
All the questions about family, marriage, power and personal need that Sewell poses are just as relevant as ever, thirty years. Eamon Flack’s production is powerful and moving. Highly recommended.
The Blind Giant is Dancing
by Stephen Sewell
Directed by Eamon Flack
Venue: Upstairs Theatre | Belvoir St Theatre, 25 Belvoir St, Surry Hills NSW
Dates: 13 February – 20 March 2016
Bookings: 02 9699 3444 | belvoir.com.au