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The art of ageing, the limits of vision

Keith Gallasch

Leeanna Walsman & Robyn Nevin, Old Masters Leeanna Walsman & Robyn Nevin, Old Masters
photo Heidrun Löhr
A large red curtain diagonals the stage. Between it and the audience, a triangle of earth, a music hallish forestage. A performer opens the curtain, more soil, tall tufts of dead grass, the wall of a house built from old cupboards, trunks and wardrobes, adorned with stuffed native animals and a piano—later to be played by a wombat. Along the adjoining, long black wall, a row of gas jets—a very old house, a theatre from another century? For Beatrix Christian’s Old Masters, a neo-Shakespearean comedy with a droll Chekhovian discursiveness, director Benedict Andrews and designer Justin Kurzel have created a magical double world where relationships between individuals can be scrutinised with an acid, poetic realism and the thin line between life and art can be writ large like a fable, one in which all will end...well enough. Disbeliefs are rapidly suspended, characters break into affecting song (mock pop, Sondheim, Schubert, Waits), the hired help (an opera chorine, name of Henry [Frank Whitten]) lurks with a skull mask, doubling as Death, witness to the torments of lovers in a magic circle of trees. A shocking death will only be a dream...but life will never be the same. As well, our hostess is unwilling: “I’m a muse, not a narrator”, objects Fleur Wattle (Jacki Weaver) the ageing, life-long nude model to Lillian Fromm, the great artist (Robyn Nevin) who is suffering the painter’s block on which hinges a large part of the play’s outcome.

The Fromm family have gathered, each with their own burden, each in search of some resolution or preservation. Lillian’s former husband, womaniser (including an affair with Fleur) and heart-attack candidate Gordon (Max Cullen), is on hand with his second wife, Dorotéa (Julie Forysth), at first appearance a tough petit bourgeois out to get half of Lillian’s property. She is, but we grow to understand her charitable motive for refugee women. There’s Lillian and Gordon’s son, Ford (Aaron Blabey), a postal contractor, an escapee from his mother’s greatness, and from an affair with Fleur which will threaten the bond with his father. However, Ford’s determination to achieve ordinariness is usurped by his love for Vivika, a junkie poet, whom Lillian seizes on as her new muse. Will Lillian be inspired anew? Will Vivika stay with Lillian and be freed of her drug dependency? Will Ford lose the love of Vivika and his father? Can Dorotéa get Gordon to will her his share of Lillian’s land? Will Gordon die unloved? What kind of life does Fleur face, ageing, stripped of lovers, fully clothed and nobody’s muse?

The establishing of this interlocking set of emotional dilemmas is dazzlingly realised. Christian’s dialogue is alive with sharp one liners, rhyme and half rhyme and a compelling aphoristic drive as well as that Australian rarity, a distinctive voice for each character. Andrews provides a theatrical sleight of hand that allows complex emotional moments to be dealt with briskly, comically and with a fitting, choreographed physical intensity. He sustains this to the very end, but on the way something has gone wrong, or missing, been thinned out. The words stop hitting home, we’re witnessing economy resolutions, simple homilies, mere narration. It’s unnerving. After all we’ve been through, is this it?

The pivotal moment in Act II, before the play seems to fade, is the sneak preview of Lillian’s painting of Vivika, a marvellous physical and verbal dance of a scene in which Vivika, Fleur and Dorotéa interpret the artwork. Whose feet are they? Vivika’s? She is so proud. But what do they represent? Christ’s feet? Yes. But they’re old feet. Fleur’s feet! Fleur is ecstatic, the muse once more. Lillian, emerging from the dark, says yes, they are Fleur’s, but announces that she has no more need of her. Fleur collapses. Nor, we soon see, will Lillian need Vivika. Just herself...she ponders self-portraits. It gets a laugh. It fosters a thought. Of all the characters—and despite Robyn Nevin’s fine, restrained portrait of a self-possessed, sometimes inadvertantly cruel person, never wifely, rarely motherly, always the artist—this is the one character who is most symbolic and the least actual. Her few moments of interiority are conveyed largely in song; she has few protracted exchanges with the others; little they do impinges on her. Of course, Fleur is at the centre of a play, finally enjoying playing narrator, coming to grips with her loss...but all this is pretty perfunctory in the end, as if there is nothing that can be said between her and Lillian, not even the struggle to speak. Expectations are high, outcomes low. Perhaps the adherence to a comic vision curtailed pushing the emotional limits, kept Lillian in the artist box. But the history of comedy is full of sublime darkness.

These worries don’t extend to the performances which are formidable, suggesting the outer reaches to which the play doesn’t always extend. Leeana Walsman excels in an off-the-edge performance, the tottering, ankle-collapsing, shooting-up junkie poet in love with Ford but glimpsing salvation as a muse, knowing that a return to ordinary life means death—and to it she goes.

There is so much to relish and treasure in Old Masters that it seems niggardly to criticise it for what it doesn’t perhaps aspire to. However, there were many who thought that Beatrix Christian’s The Governor’s Family was a great play. The playwright got a critical thrashing for it. With Fred and Old Masters under her belt and the critics’ warm approval, it’s to be hoped that her adaptations of Chekhov’s The Three Sisters (STC, 2001) and Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (STC 2002) will encourage Christian to explore the outer limits of her vision in her own next play.

Beatrix Christian, Old Masters, director Benedict Andrews, designer Justin Kurzel, composer Max Lambert, lighting Nigel Levings, costumes Fiona Crombie; Wharf 1, Sydney Theatre Company, opened October 17

RealTime issue #46 Dec-Jan 2001 pg. 38

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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