Left – Nick Fagan and Steve Marvanek. Cover – Steve Marvanek and Nick Fagan
Myth, Propaganda and Disaster in Nazi Germany and Contemporary America is a long play with a long title and, at times, hard work for the audience who are rewarded for their attention by understanding the enormity of the problem which can be said to have only got worse. It is a brave production by the University of Adelaide Theatre Guild now in its 80th year. It certainly makes you think both at the play and afterwards.
It was written by Stephen Sewell as a response to 9/11 in 2001 and had its opening performance in 2003. Then the President was George W. Bush. Like Orwell’s 1984, written in 1948, the future the play predicted was considered too fantastical, too wildly unrealistic. But Big Brother in all his myriad forms is watching over us, knowing where we are, who we have contact with and speak to and what we say, where and what we buy when we shop etc. etc. Now, 15 years later, the President is Donald Trump and in between we have learned much about how government works, not only in America but in most other countries including Australia, and this play is confirmation of what we know to be true – that governments, corporations, banks, big business, churches, universities and so on are dishonest to say the least and often evil and it shows how manipulation and self interest in most organisations was and is rife. That is the problem this play seeks to address. Its conclusion offers no solutions or even any hope or expectation of amelioration.
The New York Ivy League College (University), in and around Columbia University, is the fictional location for this play. The production’s principal sponsor is the University of Adelaide, a healthy sign I hope. After seeing this play and knowing that nothing is what it seems, one wonders.
It is advertised as “a drama in 30 scenes”, and all are cleverly lit by Scott Cleggett and given sound and authentic film clips of Hitler, Stalin, Bush and numerous other movers and shakers as well as a clever art gallery by Isobel Clemow-Meyer and Adam Hawes. The play is contained in one set (Brittany Daw) – a table and chairs here, a computer there, bookcases, pictures, and the fourth wall a window overlooking Manhattan.
The character on whom this play pivots is untenured Talbot (Nick Fagan) an Australian lecturer in politics at the University. Much depends on the character and Nick Fagan grows into the role more assuredly as each page is turned, each perplexity revealed and as he cops each bitter blow. He gives a very good performance surrounded by a strong cast, with expert guidance and support from the Director and the production team.
He is married to American television and film writer, Eve. She says, “Sometimes I think I am turning into a thing” and mourns the ennui of life, constantly wondering what it’s all for – an age old question that this play can’t answer of course. She wants most to give birth to a child and a film. Even when she does one of those, it turns to ashes in her mouth. The character is a little tiresome and superficial in her reiteration, even to a patient psychologist (Esther Michelsen), but the best is made of her by Jessica Carroll, who looks too young and whose voice is too girlish, for the 35 years she says she is.
With the image of the Stars and Stripes projected on a wall behind him, we hear Talbot finishing a lecture delivered with passion and conviction about myths that distort facts in the history of the world. Anyone who has ever sat through lectures knows what it’s like to be at the mercy of speakers who lack enthusiasm. Talbot is not one of them and a student who admires this quality in him and what he has to say is Marguerite. She’s an intelligent, idealistic, fearless young Muslim, admirably performed by Yasmin Martin.
It is hard to play a slime-bag convincingly and consistently but Tim Edhouse does the job very well indeed. Jack, head of the University Liberty Arts Department is the sort of self-righteous man who proves that “one may smile and smile and be a villain” – the sort we all know so well from our own political big wigs. He’s married to alcoholic Amy (Kyla Booth), she who leaps to a well-known phrase of the future with, “Whisky and witch-hunts made America great.” She knows what her husband is and endures it because it’s her best option to stay in the comfortable purlieu of America’s WASPs which includes waspish, in the other sense, University lawyer Stan, competently played by Jarrod Chave, a man bothered by his conscience – but not much. His wife, Jill (Emma Kerr) is personified by her new hat. Everyone knows someone like Jill. Max (James Black) old Aussie friend of Talbot, pays a visit. He’s earnest and open with “Mate” starting every sentence of his kindly advice to Talbot. He’s a Latin professor, retrenched from his Australian university, divorced from his wife – and looking – for what? We find out. What we don’t find out is about The Teacher, who is awesomely placid and played implacably in sunglasses and white rubbery gloves by Steve Marvanek. He has no doubts. He speaks in reasonable tones, asks searching questions and demands clear and fulsome answers and he is brutal. He is Orwell’s O’Brien. Or is he? That’s for you to decide.
You think you know but then there’s that explosion.
In programme notes the Director (Erik Strauts) says that his father was appalled when his student son dropped history as a subject saying that we need to study it to avoid past mistakes. The boy replied, “The one thing that I have learned from history so far, is that society never learns from history.” Not a new thought by any means but it leads to Strauts’ comment now, “I will let the play speak for itself.” Speak for itself it certainly does through the mouths of a very good group of actors whose characters’ beliefs and inclinations delineate them from each other but who are a co-ordinated ensemble presenting a difficult play.
The more you know of our history, the more you’ll enjoy and understand it. Names and words like 9/11, Australian Aborigines, Jackie Collins, Afghans, C.I.A, Kafka, post modernism, Fascism, weapons of mass destruction, Axis of evil, the plague, homeland security, Wollongong Tech, Philosopher King, Escher, Das Kapital, Michael Douglas, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, blasphemy, Karl Marx, the Enlightenment, burning crosses of hate, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, God, Twin Towers, Plato, Socrates, Rush Limbaugh, Marx – Groucho or Chico – and others are sprinkled throughout. If they mean little or nothing to an audience, wherever that audience may be, in America, Australia or Timbuktu, that is something that would make this play difficult to understand at times but there are also the moral and ethical questions that have torn at us in recent history such as feminism, sexual harassment, terrorism, rigged elections, ivory towers, police States, the law as manipulated by lawyers and more. There is too much information and expectation of historical knowledge in this play to make it easy to watch but there’s a lot to learn in this play and one’s “Research List” has interesting additions. And then one wants to see it again.
University Theatre Guild presents
Myth, Propaganda and Disaster in Nazi Germany & Contemporary America
by Stephen Sewell
Director Erik Strauts
Venue: Little Theatre | The Cloisters (off Victoria Drive) Gate 10. Uni. of Adelaide
Dates: 5 – 19 May 2018
Tickets: $23 – $28