Theatre Stephen Sewell’s mission unaccomplished
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