Rake and Wentworth return to our TV sets to enthral and appal in equal measure as they deal in their way with aspects of the law
What a delight it is to welcome back Richard Roxburgh’s Rake to our screens as he takes us on another hysterical journey with his wonderfully ragged ensemble of cronies, enemies and conquests. An expansive, offbeat character study — a kind of comedy of dissolute manners — Rake is also a political portrait that examines why we feel our legal institutions so often fail us.
As its title suggests, the series is also a sex farce, resonant with sexual deliciousness and one of the most acerbically intelligent dramas we’ve produced.
If you have managed to resist his charms since he first appeared four years and three seasons ago, Roxburgh’s Cleaver Greene is the Sydney lawyer everyone in jail would love to have but is never able to find. He’s too busy acting for those clients still free whose cases appear utterly hopeless, often to the astonishment, disdain and sometimes palpable fear of the bench.
Greene is an alluring, arrogant, clever and emotionally complex protagonist who, like the rakes of Restoration comedy, is a womanising, immoral man who cuckolds husbands, juggles several lovers and carries out deceptive plans in the interest of adding to his list of sexual conquests. But like many of those dapper, disreputable heroes, what he does is less important than what he represents — in his case a kind of larrikin independence from social conventions.
He uses wit like Congreve, which in the 17th century was a sharp weapon to be used for the amusement of those intelligent enough to follow the exchange. For Greene it’s the rapier with which he can demand satisfaction for insults real or imagined. Often his wit is so savage, and delivered in such a lateral way, it seems to leave him as dumbfounded as the person receiving his acerbic barbs.
As the show developed season by season it was also easy to see Greene in a long line of hard-boiled heroes — though he is more the cowardly version of the knight errant, softboiled and wishy-washy when it comes to the hard stuff — wandering the ambiguous terrain between institutionalised law enforcement and true justice.
Andrew Knight’s maliciously witty script for the first episode again presents Sydney society as disorderly and corrupt, its law and police machinery at best inadequate and at worst unjust. So Greene, operating rather haphazardly it must be said, is always in the rather paradoxical position of acting outside the law, supposedly to uphold it more fully by bringing a just retribution to those crooks who society is unable to expose and punish. Many of them pillars, my dear, of the establishment.
He returns to us in spectacular style under Peter Duncan’s stylish direction, after a lovely nouvelle vague-style montage in black and white of Greene’s backstories: the trysts, betrayals, failed relationships and slapstick violence he so often encounters. Last seen dangling from a balloon drifting across Sydney, Greene descends to earth through the plate-glass window of a posh harbourside townhouse, landing straight into the clutches of a one-time mentor and now powerful criminal on the run, Edgar Thompson (played by John Waters with wonderful relish and satanic insouciance.)
Once Australia’s most wanted criminal and a close associate of Greene’s, Thompson escaped from jail 19 years ago having greased thousands of palms, still connected in arcane ways to everyone who matters in Sydney. He’s a man good at hurting people, possessed of a quicksilver gift of the gab and fond of communicating with poetic whimsy, appropriating snatches of Yeats and Dylan Thomas.
His return has not only Greene — swearing off women, wine and “the marching powder” — but many people in high places feeling nervous, including former premier and now right-wing shock jock Cal McGregor (Damien Garvey, also savouring the role). Thompson has emotional dominion over a certain highly placed policewoman, so when Greene’s protection officer is murdered in a Darlinghurst hotel toilet, he goes into hiding.
Roxburgh again delivers the works in another piece of bravura acting, leaping on Knight’s wonderfully preposterous script like a tiger, a fantastic, full-volumed display. He’s coy, he’s vain, he has tantrums and, like a desperate supplicant, whispers for reassurance and forgiveness from his women. And at times this rake needs to be wooed.
Laurence Olivier once said that “in film there is no performance; you just shoot a lot of rehearsals and pick the best”. But watching Roxburgh is like watching an actor in a play, the transitions in character seamless and awesome in their intensity. Is he the best actor we have?
Certainly it’s impossible to think of anyone else playing Greene. His performance never seems chopped up into long shots and close-ups but somehow presents itself as a flowing, consecutive whole. His absorption in the hows, ifs and whys of his craft is peerless, so much so he gives the impression he can get away with anything — certainly he makes choices that would daunt a lesser actor in this role.
He relishes the difficult, the offbeat and the bizarre, grunting, whispering, delivering long speeches on one breath, or breaking them up into off staccato rhythms. Few actors so daringly deliver such gleeful insights into character. He’s coy, vain, pompous, conniving, seductive and has tantrums; he appeals for sympathy, resorts to shrill wailings savouring of self-indulgence. And is very, very funny. Those fascinated with the failings of the law and the terrible mysteries of incarceration will be also delighted at this week’s return of the highly successful Foxtel original drama Wentworth. It started life as a reimagining of that gorgeously trashy late 1970s serial Prisoner, a soap opera set in Wentworth Detention Centre, a fictional women’s prison. The show had its roots in the similar British drama series Within These Walls, but this local serial was altogether much tougher, with the women dealing with rape, murder, drugs and inevitably recidivism.
But Wentworth moved off in far more cinematic ways under Kevin Carlin’s assured direction. It became a noirish series carrying a weight of predatoriness and dread and, as in the best crime fiction, it features, like Rake, a distinct capacity for subtle social commentary. It’s an interesting example of the way in recent times crime fiction has shown itself increasingly open to women and minority groups, and Wentworth, like Orange is the New Black, features the kind of female cast TV rarely celebrates.
This is also innovative TV on many levels, a prison drama that contains many hard-boiled mysteries within its major storytelling arc, some of which intensify in the first episode of the new season. It has been four months since the catastrophic fire at the prison that saw the fall of governor Joan Ferguson (Pamela Rabe), and Bea Smith (Danielle Cormack) and the other inmates have been housed offsite while they waited for construction to be completed.
Now they’re back, arriving in prison buses in an eerie and atmospheric opening sequence that sees an introspective Bea, facing 40 years’ incarceration, huddled in her seat mesmerised as a cemetery appears to be reflected in the bus’s windows. Vera (Kate Atkinson) is now the governor, and Bea soon finds herself battling new enemies and Ferguson is on a demonic mission to exonerate herself.
A kind of morality play about evil, damnation and free will, it’s riveting storytelling presenting us with the notion that morality is never static and it’s always a personal choice. At its centre is Cormack’s Bea Smith, around whom revolves the narrative pattern of a protagonist placed in a situation where some sort of violence or criminality becomes a moral necessity, an idea that has been around since the epics of Homer. Usually they are men, splendid heroes who face the ultimate challenge of life and death and emerge triumphant.
But here it’s a woman who is the hero, and splendid she is too, spiky and complex, her jail a kind of frontier society in which violence is part of the ordinary course of life and she can use it for just and valuable purposes as its leading citizen. And this hero is up against it every moment. Just like Cleaver Greene. Tuesday, 8.30pm, SoHo. starts May 19, 8.30pm, ABC.
Richard Roxburgh as Cleaver Greene in Rake, above; Danielle Cormack as Bea Smith (second from right) in Wentworth, left