It’s fitting Toby Schmitz should have, among many other distinguishing hallmarks of his career, starred in Robyn Nevin’s production of David Williamson’s The Great Man, since Schmitz’ new work as a writer, I Want To Sleep With Tom Stoppard, suffers from a similar pedestrianism to the tall man’s latter-day work. In fact, had someone printed Williamson’s name on the program I would’ve credulously believed him to be the author, no problem.
Like Williamson, when Schmitz really nails a line it’s as dangerously sharp as a cutthroat razor. But these are few and far between and in between them we must endure a rather haphazard comedy of ill manners. In this case, in-jokes are strewn throughout the dough, like raisins in a fruit cake. That would be enough, but we have the added pretension of excerpted classics, such as Hamlet and Streetcar. It was opening night when I attended and I don’t think I’ve ever seen the foyer of the Bondi Pavilion theatre busier and almost certainly never as densely populated with Schmitz’ theatrical peers, who were volubly enthusiastic during and after the play.
This alone I found disturbing, in the sense that fierce loyalty, while on the one hand admirable, on the other smacks of a kind of mutual, ‘you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours’ sycophanticism which can all too easily distort the intrinsic worth of a given work, by way of creating a kind of mass hysterical approbation. While this was taking hold and uproarious laughter (of the somewhat forced kind, by the sound of it) blasted forth behind and around me, I felt, for the most part, underwhelmed, waiting for the pith that occasionally surfaced to blossom beyond a mere turn of phrase.
Natalie and Vanessa Hughes’ set looked impressive, for this kitchen drama that has the good sense to send up kitchen dramas. Of course, this proved a little circular, as IWTSWTS proved, for mine, adequately self-parodying; not in need of any further infusion.
Tom Stokes seemed somewhat nervous as Luke, racing through his lines even beyond the bounds of naturalism and suffering from indistinct diction throughout. He didn’t seem really credible for his role, relative to the other performers. By reputation, he’s a gifted actor, so this may be a case of mistaken casting, the blame for which must rest with director (and Tamarama Rock Surfers Theatre artistic head honcho) Leland Kean. Wendy Strehlow is strong as Jackie, torn between wifely and motherly duties and a range of dreams and aspirations she still harbours. Andrew McFarlane’s Tom, a roaming dentist with a penchant for military memorabilia, hovers close to being a good, old-fashioned, farcical tour de force, save for some issues with diction as well; Tom is half boor, half buffoon, arguably like other dentists I’ve known. But the heroine here is Caroline Brazier, as Sarah (who Schmitz has described as ‘the real dynamo’), who delivers a mercilessly well-drawn sketch of a hedonistic actress. Most of the charisma of this play comes from Sarah, because Schmitz has taken such pleasure in writing her and Brazier, who takes such pleasure in playing her. Hers is the role around which the others orbit to fulfil the play’s mission, which is to interrogate the place and value, if any, of theatre.
Schmitz has some lofty aspirations himself with this play: ‘I also wanted to write about giving up on dreams’. Luke more-or-less has (or, at least, chooses) to give up his dream of becoming an actor, when he’s passed over to be in a substantial production of Hamlet. His mother, Jackie, has all but given up every dream she ever had, including a rather secretive one, to also be an actor. Luke’s father, Tom, is coming to grips with his ineptitude as a philanderer, which seems to embody the extent of his dreams, beyond illuminating, in precise detail, a re-enactment of Nelson’s Battle of Copenhagen. But it’s Sarah who has to give up the most, given her impossible dream of the kind of sybaritic lifestyle Richard Branson would have trouble fulfilling.
Luke is smitten with Sarah. His protective mum senses it and so does Sarah. She, on the over hand, is biding her time. Nonetheless, against Luke’s advice and appeals, she agrees to meet the parents. Much of the rest takes place over the booziest of lunches. This becomes the vehicle for each to hold forth on the principal subject of acting and theatre. It’s a little obvious, more than a little contrived and reminds me of an insufferable Baygon campaign from many years ago. Nonetheless, some important hypocrisies sally forth. Tom and Jackie, being the status-seeking missiles they are (they live next door to a yacht club), have obligatory theatre subscriptions, but struggle to clearly remember anything they’ve seen and are most skeptical and disapproving about Luke’s chosen vocation.
The trouble is many of the more poignant moments in the play, as well as the valid philosophical issues raised, are obscured and buried in also-ran low farce; notwithstanding a few moments which excel. In a way, while not suggesting it should take itself too seriously, Schmitz runs away from the very questions he’s sought to examine, seeking to hide in humour; to laugh it all off. The result is a well-produced play, with an undeniably striking rhythm, good to outstanding performances and a handful of ‘I wish I’d written that’ lines and insights (Sarah’s certainly right about the repetitive drain and inanity of everyday utterances, as against deftly-scripted dialogue), but one which is only intermittently and unevenly gratifying and all the more frustrating for it.
Then again, the smart young things seemed to love this slight, rather than substantial, play. One has to wonder who it’s talking to. It seems to be a play for actors and other theatre-makers, in more ways than one. That’s ok, I guess, but rather limits (on paper, anyway) the relevance and the audience. The risk being that in questioning the value of theatre, it may have answered. The value is in the eyes and ears of the beholders. Fewer beholders doesn’t necessarily make a play any less valuable but, like a political party that only manages to appeal to its true believers, it does open itself to accusations of material elitism, no matter how base or saucy the idiom in which it basks, in an effort to conceal such. Let’s hope it doesn’t disappear up its own clacker.
Nice try. Smoke. But no cigar. Toby Schmitz is the new David Williamson.
The details: I Want To Sleep With Tom Stoppard plays the Bondi Pavilion Theatre until September 22. Tickets on the company website.