Photo – James Green
Writing short plays is undeniably challenging. With a stage-time of ten to twenty minutes, you are often dealing not so much with a story as you are a long scene or two, less of a plot than the germ of a scenario, and typically building to a climax and dénouement that is really more like a dramatic punchline. These kinds of formalist constraints can either be limiting for a playwright, or they can be seen as a challenge to spur out-of-box creativity. Ideally, the necessity for such brevity becomes the mother of invention.
Power Plays is a collection of five new short works in about 100 fairly brisk minutes, by five Australian playwrights, starring five actors playing different roles in each. Much like a conference or symposium, the writers have been give a brief of loosely exploring a unified theme, that of “Power”. This has been variously interpreted as political power, economic power, interpersonal power, generational and gender power struggles, the power of words and reputations, and the power in controlling oneself… or not.
When Vampires Shop by Melissa Bubnic is predominantly a stream-of-consciousness diatribe concerning the self-justification of an angsty, upper-middle-class white-collar worker wrestling with the idea of what it is to be morally “good”. What are the dictates of personal conscience in our world of unfettered consumerism and material indulgence in the face of the disempowered lives of those third world workers who provide such goods? It is a somewhat tedious piece despite its rapid-fire delivery, and is perhaps most engaging when juxtaposed with its darkly comic interlude – a “pitch meeting” of several cynical and venal advertising writers imagining various celebrity-driven “sex sells” type advertising campaigns for unspecified products.
The Green Room by noted stage and screen up-and-comer Nakkiah Lui takes a hard-turn tonal shift into broad farce, with a collection of neurotic, self-absorbed and self-deluding characters gathering in the titular green room before going onto a QandA-type national news-panel show. Multiple threads intersect, between bawdy and tawdry dalliances between the hard-as-nails television producer and a stressed-out political fixer, collusion between a political activist and the show’s self-important host, and a major politician who seems to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown… it’s all funny, silly stuff. There’s nothing too deep or incisively biting here, but some interesting observational humour about the barbed stereotypes the right and left of politics hurl at each other, as well as the precarious and often illusory nature of both political and interpersonal power in a game where presenting the desired image and the struggle of “controlling the political narrative” through soundbites are everything.
Off Centre by Michele Lee presents the most conventional narrative of these short plays, being comprised of multiple scenes and having the clearest thread of a contained plot per se. It details an intersection between two hotel waitresses working at a conference function, and a conservative government minister about to give a speech there. Both the minister and one of the waitresses both feel powerless, beset by considerable personal troubles in their respective lives, but the possibility emerges that they might help each other through a moment of considering their similarities across the massive cultural differences between them. It is a slight piece, with a rather telegraphed twist, but it is engaging and more satisfyingly narrative than most of the other plays, enhanced by well-drawn characters.
Hester Beckenbaur’s Good Fortune is written by Hannie Rayson, by far the most well-established of the playwrights in this collection, and it focuses on her familiar themes of intergenerational conflict, particularly the dissonance of ideological attitudes towards money and privilege between lefty Baby Boomers and their self-involved Generation X/Millennial offspring. A successful children’s book author has chosen to invest her fortune in sustainable energy, much to the dismay of her three adult children who have grown up with the privilege afforded by her success, and they are expecting a tidy inheritance. Although, frankly, Boomer versus Gen X cultural warfare and the stereotype of narcissistic Millennials being the direct result of “special snowflake” parenting are becoming rather played-out topics of late in my opinion, Rayson’s piece has the advantage of actually being quite funny. It also benefits from having a more interestingly specific focus on the issue, to whit how growing up with a sense of entitlement to economic power can be greatly at odds with the notion of being due an inheritance, asking the question of whether parents really “owe” their adult progeny further financial nest eggs or have the right to invest their money in things they may personally value more highly, such as the environment.
Feminazi by Debra Thomas is the last and most dramatically focused of the five plays, being a two-hander as a single sustained scene. It is a semi-comedic, faintly Hitchcockian scenario which has a journalist posing as a bimbo seeking to expose the pernicious conduct of a deeply loathsome misogynist, who ironically happens to be the conservative government’s Minister for Women. Although again, at the risk of sounding blasé, while much of this comes across as covering a very well-trodden path thematically speaking, you never know if this will be someone in the audience’s first exposure to the discussion of these important topics. And, to be fair, it does a successful job of briefly explicating worthy issues such as sexist cyber-bullying, doxxing, the spurious free-speech rhetoric of virulent misogynists and their victim-blaming culture of imagined male persecution, not to mention the outrageously inappropriate assignment of certain cabinet positions, which, or course, are all still very much major ongoing concerns. While simplistic it is a well-executed dramatic scenario whereby the feminist conquers the troll which, although predictable, is quite satisfying.
All five plays share the same cast of five actors, who are each excellent in their own right. Of particular note are Vanessa Downing who is extremely funny and chameleonic as the spacey television host, bitter Minister, and tipsily bemused author in the middle three plays, and especially Michelle Lim Davidson, who similarly plays quite radically different roles in each piece and is, on balance, prominently featured in all of them. She particularly excels as the put-upon waitress in the third play, and the crusading feminist writer posing as a ditz in the final piece. She is alternately funny and powerful as each character, even managing to make the best of the opening play’s rather turgid monologue.
Power Plays is an entertaining exercise in short-form theatremaking along a centralised theme, even if none of the individual pieces are especially memorable. Although none are notably weak either, it is a shame that the format was not used to really push the envelope either formally or thematically. Instead they mostly take some fairly tame potshots at the implied Liberal government through various fictionalised conservative politicians, and rehashing not-especially-cutting-edge topics of Western consumerism, generational conflict with Boomers, and the culture of online misogyny. Worthy subjects one and all to be sure, but tackled here by these playwrights with seemingly little terribly original to say, nor any especially striking new way of hammering their points home. Paige Rattray’s direction is assured and includes some amusing non-sequitur scenery changes, but when you can hear more than one person in the audience around you comment that the drum-playing Energizer Bunny that covers one transition between plays has been “the best thing so far”, it is perhaps a bad sign…
If bite-sized chunks of newly-penned theatre sounds more your speed than the latest theatrical epic or re-imagined classic, then you could certainly do worse than this collection of relatively diverting and mostly quite amusing short plays, presented by a very talented and engaging cast. And after all, if any one of the five plays doesn’t take your fancy, you don’t have long to wait before you can give the next one a try.
Sydney Theatre Company presents
five short plays by Melissa Bubnic, Michele Lee, Nakkiah Lui, Hannie Rayson and Debra Thomas
Director Paige Rattray
Venue: Wharf 2 Theatre | Sydney Theatre Company, Walsh Bay
Dates: 17 September – 15 October 2016
Tickets: $39 – $30
Bookings: 02 9250 1777 | www.sydneytheatre.com.au