Robyn Nevin in Apologia | Fairfax Studio, Melbourne (Pic: Jeff Busby)

Apologia, in literature, is a defense; a justification of motive.

It is not, Kristin bitterly insists, an apology. She has nothing to apologise for. She’s been on the barricades her whole life fighting for a better world. Fighting against apathy. Against the wretched complacency she sees in her children. When she sees them at all.

What do we owe generations past and future? It’s a pertinent question. David Williamson (and let this be the last mention of Don and his posse) offered an awkward mea culpa for his. As he wrote for Crikey:

“There’s a sense that we had it all and they’ve got to clean up the mess. In fact, a central theme of Don Parties On is an apology, expressed by Don at the end of the play to the generations coming after them.”

Alexi Kaye Campbell’s substantive 2009 play is a counterpoint: to a selfish generation held hostage to consumerism, Kristen — the inimitable Robyn Nevin — has nothing but recrimination. She’s an art historian, varnishing works like she has the world, in the hope of restoring them to their former glory. For all the freedom she’s fought for — against de Gaulle and the Russians and the Vietnam War — she’s trapped by her own uncompromising idealism. Being right has become increasingly lonely.

And as much as she resents her children for not taking up arms, she resents herself for abandoning them to do it. Peter (Ian Bliss) and Simon (Patrick Brammall) are distant and bear scars from her revolution. Peter has found the love of his life Trudi (Laura Gordon) and God — in that order; Simon has hit a roadblock in his relationship with soap star Claire (Helen Christinson) and in his own mental wellbeing. They return to their mother’s country retreat for her birthday, joined by what we imagine is Kristin’s lone ally, aging gay hippy Hugh (Ron Falk).

They are all, excruciatingly, English; hard-shelled and soft-bellied. Just like Kaye Campbell’s first play, gay-themed The Pride, which also dealt with cross-generational relationships. As the Athenian-born, American and British-educated playwright says in the program:

“English characters never say what they mean. I like to explore how in English middle-class life there is always a sub-text. They speak in code and what they really think is held back. This is just what a dramatist wants. Whereas the job with Greeks is that they sort of shout out everything at once, whatever’s on their minds. A play would be over in five minutes.”

This goes for over two hours. These characters are as cold as the chicken Kristen’s broken oven fails to roast; as stiff as the dining room table, centre stage, they dance around (Shaun Gurton’s enveloping set, cleverly lit by Nigel Levings, seats us virtually at the table). The long first act has an uncomfortable rhythm; we laugh when we probably shouldn’t. Trudi tries desperately to bond with her partner’s mother, but Kristen’s resolve stiffens. Her barbs are breathtakingly vicious. Perhaps it goes on too long; Kaye Campbell makes us work too hard. It’s difficult to care enough about anyone to return from interval.

But the payoff comes in the second act. Pain comes to the surface. Kristen begins to melt, and Nevin begins to act. Try and sit up close, if you can — the really remarkable thing about Nevin as an actor is just how busy her face is. It is indefatigable, even as age creeps indelibly across it. It betrays the words and hints at feeling — yes, like all good actors, but the silver-haired veteran offers a masterclass in it. This very British play would be lost without it.

There’s no weak link in the cast. As the damaged Simon, Brammall is particularly affecting in his lone scene. Trudi’s brash bible-bashing Americanism and Claire’s spoilt celebrity are both saved from cliché by Gordon and Christinson. Falk revels in Hugh’s flamboyance with some nicely-timed zingers. Credit, too, to voice consultant Anna McCrossin-Owen: the accents were, to this untrained ear, flawless.

And to director Jennifer Flowers, who never takes the easy path to humour or pathos. Not that Kaye Campbell’s inexorable script allows it. As an examination of the line between idealism and extremism, it’s a heady and probably timely brew.

Robyn Nevin and Patrick Brammall in Apologia (Pic: Jeff Busby)

Curtain Call rating: B+

The details: Apologia is at the Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre until April 9. Tickets on the MTC website.