John Howard and Shelly Lauman in Every Breath | Belvoir St Theatre

Colin Friels, apparently, reckons Benedict Andrews is an egocentric wanker, more-or-less. When I read Friels’s cleverly publicity-seeking missive in The Australian the other day, I wondered, even if true, how that might distinguish him from a hundred other actors and directors — possibly including Friels, currently on stage in Red.

He went further. He said, in case you missed it: “I see his productions and I sort of want to jump off The Gap; I want to poke my eyes out with blunt sticks and throw them at the director.”

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When I read it, I almost felt protective and indignant on Benedict’s behalf. But last week I saw the second play he’s written, Every Breath, at Belvoir St. Now, it’s very cool to like Andrews’ work. Even Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton seem to think so. And we can’t tar all his work with the same brush. Plus, we need to draw a line in the sand between Andrews the director and Andrews the playwright.

However, as unfashionable and, perhaps, needlessly outspoken as Col’s comments may be (one wonders if there’s some history between them), on the strength, or lack of it, of this new play I’m inclined to stand behind Mr Friels.

Every Breath has the stench of death about it. If BA wasn’t as “in” as he is, he’d be out. This is a career-killer. Did I imagine the opening night audience mustering all its strength to give a polite level of applause and an obligatory curtain call? It certainly seemed like a reward for effort, rather than merit. I’ve nothing against Mr Andrews. I really wanted to like this play. I really tried. But it wasn’t doable.

John Howard, Shelly Lauman, Eloise Mignon, Angie Milliken and Dylan Young wavered, one and all, between looking quite convincing in their roles and all at sea. They looked especially apprehensive (Howard foremost among them) at curtain. Howard’s diction (and others’, here and there) went in and out of phase, too. But these vagaries of performance weren’t the major issue.

A caveat: Andrews’ writing isn’t without an engaging cadence at times. It can even be poetic, as his programme notes can. He has a great deal of insight, is a keen student of life and succeeds, to an extent, in transcribing the conversations he imagines between the characters he invents. But a lot is lost in translation. I admire and laud his bravery and inventiveness; his penchant for the unexpected and unconventional. But rather than having the bite he’s known for, this production is just a dog. No teeth.

A well-to-do family is under threat, so they hire a security guard. Or someone does. Insofar as it goes, this isn’t a bad metaphor, if not exactly the most subtle one. It would seem to go to a more general observation about insecurity and uncertainty; as individuals, families and a society. Even in company we’re lonely. (Deja vu: I’m sure I’ve made this association with another piece of late).

There are a number of mentions of Chris, the androgynous security guard (variously described as he, or she, in soliloquies by different members of the family), as a guardian angel. He or she (there’s even a pretentious meandering on the subject of Hermaphrodite) is a teddybear; security-blanket. But even a teddybear, or guardian angel, apparently, has fears. Perhaps because there is no God. Chris, the teddybear, the security-blanket, the guardian angel, “spends long hours, day and night, by the pool, watching”. Watching and waiting. Waiting for the eventuality. The messiah? The apocalypse? Waiting out his or her life. Just like the family he or she protects. Just as we all do, whether we lose ourselves in a whirlwind schedule to distract from the inevitable eventuality or sit on the verandah smoking joints.

Another caveat: as will be evident, Every Breath isn’t without interesting, thought-provoking ideas. It’s just that it’s so exaggerated, overwrought and hamfisted.

Leo (Howard) is a successful writer. His whole egocentric life is about, as wife Lydia (Angie Milliken) puts it, “filling pages”. As in so many couplings, Leo and Lydia have grown apart: the wildness they once had for each other has been replaced by a long dining table. They sit at either end. The table is laden with banquet food, which suffices for the emotional nutrition the family really craves and needs. It looks like the last supper. They talk about artichokes dipped in butter; caviar and wine; while life, like food, decays around them. Their fragile, tenuous lives, much as they possess the privilege to be able to summarily ignore it, are decomposing. The inexorable force of attrition knows no socioeconomic class. Their emotional and spiritual selves are full of wormholes. Their self-images are no longer up to the task of sustaining or deluding them. They can no longer find solace or comfort in each other, much as they might want it.

So they turn to Chris, the hapless, empty stranger, on whom they spontaneously and desperately pin all their hopes and aspirations. S/he is their would-be tooth fairy. Their genie. But Chris doesn’t have any of the resources the family projects onto him/her.

Their obsessions are acted-out sexually — everyone is sleeping with Chris. This might be supposed to be ‘darkly funny’, but it’s just dark; barely funny. It might be supposed to be ‘sweetly eerie’; it’s eerie, but hardly sweet. ‘Strangely familiar’? Well, I’ve heard of dysfunctional families. I might be a member of one. But this is really tipping the scales into surreal territory. The nudity entailed is banal; almost invisible. It isn’t shocking, sensual or poignant. The blurb touts “this is about what happens when prosperity gives us licence to see the world as we want to see it”. This, tragically, may be as true, or moreso, of Andrews himself than the characters he’s created. I’ve no real idea where he’s going with this. I’ve wrestled with it as fiercely as Jacob with the masked intruder in his camp. Is his world so bleak? Is ours?

Andrews characters keep insisting “it’s a beautiful evening”. This wasn’t. In the very opening line of the play Lydia asks of Chris: “Don’t you get lonely out here?” Perhaps that’s how Andrews feels, despite his celebrity. Perhaps he’s looking for his guardian angel. Perhaps it’s a cry for help. Or, perhaps, just as Leo’s wife and children confuse him with his characters, it’s all an invented ruse.

We won’t even talk about Alice Babidge’s stark, yet pointlessly over-engineered set. At least Oren Ambarchi’s composition, Luke Smiles’ sound design and Nick Schlieper’s lighting design brought high standards of craft and a dramatic fever-pitch, even if they were complicit in fostering the broken, jarring rhythms of the piece; all very now, but all very tiring.

Twinkle, twinkle, little star. How I wonder what you are.

Shelly Lauman and Dylan Young in Every Breath | Belvoir St Theatre

The details: Every Breath plays Belvoir St’s Upstairs Theatre until April 29. Tickets on the company website.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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