How do you pronounce Vale? To rhyme with whale or to rhyme with Calais? It is the former, although argument rages about how it should be pronounced when it means goodbye. It is about Joseph Vale (Mark Saturno) and his family and it is goodbye to the idea of a happy family New Year’s get-together and a few other misconceptions. So it’s as pertinent how you pronounce it as it is how you say Möet. It was amusing to hear that argument and satisfying too that foul-mouthed Joe Vale lost it, for he is one of theatre’s most unlikeable characters and it was good to see him get his come-uppance even in so minor a disagreement.
The play opens with a stunning set, the penthouse suite of a luxury hotel – you know, gold curtains to match the gold grand piano, white leather furniture, beautiful crystal chandelier, outsized well-stocked bar, massive windows overlooking Sydney’s Harbour and a wide veranda from which to watch the fireworks and to sport some tasteful Christmas lights. It’s all the work of Designer Mark Thompson and the stage crew. Lighting (Geoff Cobham) is good and the music composed for the play by Hilary Kleinig is subtle and discreet most of the time.
Joe and his wife Tina (Elena Carapetis) are awaiting the arrival of their soon-to-be-a-lawyer daughter Isla (Tilda Cobham-Hervey) and, right from the start, the ugly atmosphere takes us straight into Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf territory. The air is thick with the sense of George and Martha’s bitter tension and spiteful verbal cruelty of which Joe is master. Obedient Tina’s body language, her terse replies, frequent “It’s my fault” and tight control hints that she has a secret which will be ours to discover and it’s not long before she’s petting a doll and we are wondering if she has problems rather more pressing than an overbearing, egotistical, self-made business man for a husband. As far as he is concerned, Joe doesn’t just have a relationship with women, he owns them.
But there is new fodder for him to devour when Isla brings her boyfriend Angus (James Smith) to join in the festivities. Angus, however, is no walk-over. Indeed he takes on his future father-in-law in an admirably laid-back, amusing and undefeated way and Joe, convinced that Angus, newly graduated, very bright and loaded with honours, will be after a job before long, is delighted to discover that he was brought up by his mother as a single parent. Joe revels in the torment he can inflict on the young man, the barbs he can throw at his mother via Angus and the acid wit he uses to demean them both. He is astonished when Isla tells him that Diana (Emma Jackson), the mother in question, is returning from abroad and will be joining them to see in the New Year. Her arrival dissipates the toxic atmosphere, her energetic joyousness at seeing her son and pleasure at meeting Isla, fill the stage. She is like none of the others, full of bounce and fun even giving the two of them lurid Christmas jumpers and, curiously, one for Tina’s mysterious doll. Joe isn’t there to dampen her enthusiasm by any nasty remarks and when they do meet he relishes telling her that no, he isn’t hiring the apartment for the holiday, he is the owner of that and several other Vale hotels (shades of Trump, indeed). By then though the game of destruction is afoot and when Joe brings out his big, vicious, bullying guns for her he finds she’s carrying a can of worms that the rest of the play reveals one by one, surprises that ensure that this is one New Year’s celebration no-one will forget.
This was a World Premier and was commissioned by NIDA for the State Theatre Company. In the programme the author, Nicki Bloom, says, “The world of Vale resonates loudly for us right now, living as we are in a world governed by ruthless, grasping man babies, clinging to their rung on the ladder, with no qualms about kicking those on the rungs below them further down. What is our response to this? What does the future look like? Is the seed or our own destruction embedded in what we create?” The Director (Geordie Brookman) says that Bloom “has bound up all the selfishness, rage and braggadocio that seem to dominate so many middle aged white men in power” and “it centres itself on a family in crisis, the awful tug of war between generations and genders.” Apropos Joe Vale, Bloom quotes Edward Albee’s “You gotta have a swine to show you where the truffles are” but I was hard-put to find the truffles, the precious rewards, the goodness in the dark earth. This is a tragedy based on arrogance, ego, naked ambition, more than a dash of fear – and mischance – the lives of all six characters destroyed in the process.
Joe’s character is overwritten and over-the-top in parts and, in the second act, the play has the characteristics of a melodrama in its sudden revelations. There are fine performances from all the cast and the play is very well staged. It’s a credit to Nicki Bloom, the cast who helped in its construction and the crew. It’s also to the credit of the State Theatre Company that they commission Australian writers to bring us new drama.
Matinee performances (under the misnomer umbrella of “Morning Melodies”) at the State Theatre are followed by sessions when the well-known radio and television presenter, Keith Conlon, talks about the play with some of the cast to an audience of those who choose to stay behind. It is always interesting although both interviewer and cast members can go off into a tangent making sessions a bit long. To answer some of the burning questions the audience have, questions from them would perhaps keep things more on track.
The play, at the Don Dunstan Playhouse, is on now until the 3rd December. Psst... it’s Mow-ett.
State Theatre Company South Australia presents
by Nicki Bloom
Director Geordie Brookman
Venue: Dunstan Playhouse | Address
Dates: 17 Nov — 3 Dec 2017