The­atre Stephen Sewell’s mis­sion un­ac­com­plished

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents -

IF your mis­sion was to name the Aus­tralian play­wright who best com­bined the qual­i­ties of max­i­mum se­ri­ous­ness and am­bi­tion, it would be hard to go past Stephen Sewell. Who but Sewell would have dared bring to­gether the spec­tre of Kafka and a cri­tique of the war on ter­ror in a play ti­tled Myth, Pro­pa­ganda and Dis­as­ter in Nazi Ger­many and Con­tem­po­rary Amer­ica?

When I saw Aubrey Mel­lor’s pro­duc­tion of this Sewell work in 2003, I thought it was the most for­mi­da­ble artis­tic re­sponse to the events of Septem­ber 11, 2001, any­where. And sub­se­quent nov­els by John Updike, Don DeLillo and Jonathan Safran Foer haven’t changed my mind.

Ac­tors of the stature of Ge­of­frey Rush, Steve Bis­ley and Hugo Weav­ing have tack­led the time­less role of Allen Fitzger­ald, the left­ist econ­o­mist and union or­gan­iser at the heart of The Blind Gi­ant is Danc­ing, Sewell’s char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally in­tense 1983 drama of pol­i­tics and hu­man in­ti­macy in dan­ger­ous col­li­sion.

Now, 25 years af­ter it was first pub­lished, Mar­ion Potts, di­rec­tor of Mel­bourne’s Malt­house the­atre, is re­viv­ing his 1988 play Hate, with Wil­liam Zappa as the wealthy pa­tri­arch who wants to run the coun­try in an era when greed is good, and Ben Geurens as the son who tries hard­est to back away from him.

Yet if you ask Sewell, who turns 60 this year (and who has re­cently been ap­pointed head of writ­ing for per­for­mance at the Na­tional In­sti­tute of Dra­matic Art), how things are go­ing, he says in the most af­fa­ble tone, ‘‘ I just feel a com­plete fail­ure.’’ Why? ‘‘ Well, I’ve spent my en­tire life try­ing to ex­plore the var­i­ous kinds of crises in democ­racy and I haven’t made a jot of dif­fer­ence. Things have just be­come dra­mat­i­cally worse.’’

The dif­fi­cult place he finds him­self now is some­thing of a balancing act: ‘‘ You don’t want to be a nasty ar­se­hole,’’ he says, ‘‘ and at the same time you don’t want to be an id­iot en­dors­ing the world.’’

Sewell is that rare thing in Aus­tralia, a deeply po­lit­i­cal play­wright, a man of the lib­eral Left, shaped by rad­i­cal­ism and his en­gage­ment with Marx, though a long way from Ber­tolt Brecht, for in­stance. ‘‘ I’m a much more con­ven­tional writer. Brecht could look deep into the struc­tures of cap­i­tal­ism. I want to en­joy the emo­tions and the dra­matic involvement.’’

His range is ev­i­dent in the wide va­ri­ety of ma­te­rial he cov­ers in his plays, each one dif­fer­ent from the next. Blind Gi­ant is full of the hor­rors of NSW pol­i­tics, for ex­am­ple, while in The Sick Room a dy­ing teenage girl makes the mem­bers of her fam­ily stare into the dark mir­rors of their lives.

‘‘ One of the won­der­ful things about Cezanne is the way ev­ery paint­ing of his asks the ques­tion, ‘ How is paint­ing pos­si­ble?’ I think it’s true that ev­ery play I’ve writ­ten is an at­tempt to find out what drama is.’’

He laughs at the me­mory of Hate be­ing a Bi­cen­ten­nial com­mis­sion and Pa­trick White’s re­sponse to his ac­cept­ing it: ‘‘ Well, that’s the end of him.’’

In fact, Hate is a very dark re­flec­tion of Aus­tralia, one lack­ing en­tirely in na­tion­al­ist fer­vour. Sewell ad­mits to a deep am­biva­lence to­wards nationalism: the things loves about Aus­tralia don’t have much to do with peo­ple wav­ing flags.

He adds, char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally enough, that in the years since Aus­tralia Day be­came an of­fi­cial hol­i­day, Aus­tralians have been fight­ing wars ‘‘ at the be­hest of some for­eign power’’.

A pes­simist as well as a se­ri­ous artist, he says ev­ery day of his life is an at­tempt to strug­gle to cre­ate: ‘‘ I’m not even sure that there will be an end to it.’’

He’s been lucky, he be­lieves, in terms of the direc­tors he’s worked with — in par­tic­u­lar Neil Arm­field and Jim Shar­man, who di­rected Three Furies, his provoca­tive play about the artist Fran­cis Ba­con.

‘‘ I love to work with Neil and Jim,’’ Sewell says. Ego is a ter­ri­ble thing and para­noia is easy to cul­ti­vate. If Neil or Jim said to me, ‘ That’s good’ or ‘ That’s no good’, I wouldn’t doubt them for a sec­ond. I would just know they were right.’’

He’s fas­ci­nated by the re­la­tion­ship be­tween lan­guage — pure lin­guis­tic mas­tery — and the way it can change the world. He con­tin­ues to be pre­oc­cu­pied by Shake­speare, who taught him what lit­tle he knew about plays when he was start­ing out. In par­tic­u­lar, he’s fas­ci­nated by the fact that Shake­speare lived in a highly po­lit­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment and must have faced ‘‘ some pretty fright­en­ing mo­ments’’: the mur­der of Mar­lowe, for in­stance, and the Es­sex Re­bel­lion in which, to the fury of Elizabeth I, Richard II was re­vived as a ra­tio­nale for the upris­ing.

Lan­guage, pol­i­tics, art: they’re themes that go deep with Sewell. ‘‘ Think about World War II,’’ he says, ‘‘ where both Bri­tain and Ger­many were led by men who were artists — they were both painters and both great or­a­tors.’’ In a sense they sum­moned each other up.

‘‘ And at the very moment that Churchill was de­liv­er­ing his ‘ We shall fight them on the beaches’, the For­eign Of­fice was draw­ing up plans for ca­pit­u­la­tion and say­ing that Churchill’s speech was a load of old cob­blers. And yet it was the mag­nif­i­cence of Churchill’s lan­guage — that mag­nif­i­cent rhetoric — that gave them a path­way through to win­ning the war.’’

It’s ut­terly typ­i­cal of Sewell’s se­ri­ous­ness and breadth that he in­tends mak­ing his NIDA stu­dents study clas­si­cal rhetoric.

Our con­ver­sa­tion shifts back to Hate —a black drama about a fam­ily tear­ing it­self apart, a mock cel­e­bra­tion of the na­tion where the fam­ily unit it­self seems like an in­ternecine thing.

‘‘ What’s at the core of the play,’’ Sewell says, ‘‘ is that no one trusts any­one. The fam­ily is a uniquely dra­matic en­vi­ron­ment. It al­lows you to move to­wards ter­ri­ble dis­as­ter. It’s a fam­ily in cri­sis. There is the fa­ther who is am­bi­tious to achieve the trans­for­ma­tion of Aus­tralia by gain­ing the po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship. And like all such men, he is a dis­as­ter to any­one who comes in his path.

‘‘ Part of the thrill of the play is the way the other characters move against him. There’s the vi­o­lence of that and the ques­tion of who do you trust.’’

Hate was writ­ten in the im­me­di­ate af­ter­math of the 1987 Wall Street crash, and for Sewell the world of pol­i­tics and what we used to call late cap­i­tal­ism es­sen­tially has stayed the same, or even be­come worse. ‘‘ I sup­pose one way of look­ing at all this is to see it all as one cri­sis. If you date what went wrong from the break­ing of the Bret­ton Woods agree­ment, then I sup­pose we have had 40 years of cri­sis.’’

It’s a tough vi­sion and one Sewell in no way re­pents: ‘‘ If I have a crit­i­cism of my plays it’s that they don’t go deep enough.’’

The in­ter­est­ing thing about Steve Sewell is that his pol­i­tics works as a frame, even a mythol­ogy, that al­lows his drama to work.

Some­how the uni­ver­sal sense of po­lit­i­cal cor­rup­tion and the tragic strain in the lifeblood of any fam­ily en­ter­prise gives th­ese plays a charge some­thing like the qual­ity Shake­speare’s plays get from the un­der­cur­rent of the re­li­gious faith they never di­rectly ad­dress.

Stephen Sewell blends pol­i­tics and the per­sonal

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