Sarah Peirse and Robert Menzies in Fury | Wharf 1 (Pic: Lisa Tomasetti)

Fury is the latest play from Joanna Murray-Smith, now in its world premiere season at Wharf 1, directed by Andrew Upton. David Fleischer’s stark design is a guide to the style of performance, which is, on the whole, dry, contained, mannered and, for whatever reasons, antithetical to any semblance of naturalism. Thus, Fleischer’s bank of faux, grey concrete walls, denoting more than architectural coldness.

Perhaps the highly stylised deliveries of key characters are to underscore detachment from reality, which is a key discussion point in the text. That’s my speculation. And I’m sticking to it.

Nick Schlieper and Chris Twyman’s lighting is just as blunt: a glare of fluorescence, or quick fades to black. Max Lyandvert’s composition and sound design is most unobtrusive: subtle swells of sound and suggestive effects that hover and insinuate with mild-mannered menace rather than a score, in the more usual sense.

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Sarah Peirse is Alice, a highly-successful neurosurgeon about to accept a humanitarian award. Geraldine Hakewill is Rebecca, there to interview the good doctor. But how good is she? How good are any of us? Rebecca is quite driven too (she’s just got her PhD), but less prepared to own up to naked ambition, as against more reserved aspiration. But she knows something Alice doesn’t. Something Alice would prefer to forget. Needs to forget. Something that could bring her whole, carefully constructed world of ‘curated contentment’ crashing down.

Alice has been married to Patrick (Robert Menzies), a writer, for, I think, 30 years. They’ve a teenage son, Joe (Harry Greenwood). But Joe, in whom they’ve invested all their supposed moral, ethical and political integrity and bleeding heart liberalism, has just perpetrated an anachronistic hate crime. It challenges their ideas and beliefs about their son and themselves; especially when Joe’s best friend’s down-to-earth parents (Yure Covich as Bob; Claire Jones as Annie) come calling to discuss mutual outrage. Bob and Annie don’t have Patrick and Alice’s station in life, nor their awareness or political engagement (albeit passive), but they do have a way about them: specifically, a way to call a spade a shovel. Bob and Annie may have their prejudices (and were them on their sleeve), but Patrick and Alice have their secrets. Or one of them does. And the fact remains that, despite their very best efforts to educate Joe and cloak him in the heavy garment of social justice, Joe turns out to have his prejudices too.

Murray-Smith’s insights into individuals, the relations between them and macroscopic sociopolitical impacts of such are profound and eloquent. It may sound odd but, in a sense, the rather more prosaic narrative here almost gets in the way of her philosophical dissertation. I’m not being flippant. In one of those odd moments of synchronicity, Fury‘s storyline closely parallels that in Robert Redford’s latest film, The Company We Keep (not one of his best). Like Alice, Redford’s character is not who or all he seems and, in a sudden reversal of fortune, finds himself scurrying from his past. Honestly, Murray-Smith could’ve written the screenplay. It’s just one of those things and, given the rapid ageing of baby boomers, we might a slew of such stories hitting our stages and screens, as the postwar generation relives its radical youth. Much like Redford’s film, Fury observes, documents and seems to caution just how easily and instantaneously the best-laid plans and highest principles can be compromised and sacrificed.

On the one hand, it’s a kind of homage to idealism, intelligence and passion; on the other, a kind of indictment. For even these venerable qualities aren’t always enough to achieve noble ends without resorting to questionable, or heinous means. We don’t yet know the motives of the Boston bombers or even, necessarily, their true identities, as yet. But it’s likely, whoever they’re proven to be (should such proof eventuate), they will have seen themselves as “freedom fighters”, while so many of us can only ever see them as “terrorists”. It’s widely acknowledged that one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist. But, sometimes at least, the two are conflated. I can be a fine line between social responsibility and irresponsibility. It’s all to do with “the strange, unruly beauty” of the human mind, as Alice describes it.

Much of the philosophy that is the scaffold for the work is espoused through Alice and at the outset. Her ode to the mind (or, to paraphrase with greater fidelity, brain) continues. It is, she says:

“A thing that sometimes fails us; breaks, alters, fades and sometimes ruins us but that, at its best, invests our lives with delicacy, joy, imagination, morality, taste, kindness, cruelty and courage.”

Sarah Peirse, Robert Menzies and Geraldine Hakewill in Fury | Wharf 1 (Pic: Lisa Tomasetti)

Accountants, conservatives and cardigan enthusiasts aren’t likely to discover much identification with Alice, but artists of all persuasions probably will, when she equates fury with passion.

“My mother used to say every time I felt rage, to count to five before speaking. To deflect; defer; dissipate. But everything interesting happens in those five seconds. Lust, envy, ambition, determination, outrage: the energy of life is in those five seconds. Rage is passion and passion finds solutions. If something’s too hard you just don’t want it enough.”

It’s inspiring positive psychology. But can you want something too much for your own or the common good?

Murray-Smith goes there. And she goes quite deep. But her best work is between the lines of dialogue. Or, at least, between those lines of dialogue merely concerned with advancing the rather tedious plot; one not especially imbued with any high drama. There is comedy: in the overly pronounced eccentricities of the characters; not least Patrick and Bob. But there’s something a little grating about it. And the overall effect is anything but comedic.

Yet, even amidst the more pedestrian, utilitarian colloquy, there are flashes of brilliance, such as when Rebecca, in the opening scene, questions whether Alice will sound a self-congratulatory note, on behalf of the sisterhood, or just herself, at the forthcoming award ceremony, in front of the paparazzi. Alice rejoins.

“I’m not sure how many paparazzi turn up to humanitarian awards ceremonies. Maybe I’ll flash a nipple!”

She quickly follows up with a clever jibe at journos.

‘There’s a tiny area between the hypothalamus and the hippocampus that’s the physiological cerebral space for rampant ideological agenda. Interestingly, if predictably, post mortems on journalists indicate their space is larger than other people’s.”

Thus, it’s the pithiness of the writing, more than performance, for mine, that defines and describes Alice Harper’s personality. The confounding zig-zagging between ordinary and extraordinary text is the off-putting pattern of the play.

Early on, too, Alice affords a big clue as to Murray-Smith’s concerns.

“Leaving biology aside, I think we’re all tilted one way or the other in our choices; in our assumptions. From the moment we’re born, we have our parents steering us into inherited convictions.”

Too true. One only has to look at cross-generational voting habits, or other brand allegiances. The dramatic irony herein though is that while Alice (and Patrick) can recognise foibles in others, they’ve abjectly failed to see their mirror-images in such stark relief. It takes a low-flying poison dart from Bob to refocus Alice’s otherwise pin-sharp, steel trap consciousness; she, in turn, seeks to exert influence on Patrick to step outside himself and the delusions to which he (and we) need so badly to cleave.

An intriguing conceit of the production (written into the script) and deftly executed by Upton, is a fluidity between scenes, by way of fast fades and characters remaining on stage even if they’re not in the following scene. This, at once, underscores the inextricability born of six degrees of separation, the cloying intimacy of familial relationships, as well as the concurrent loneliness and isolation that’s, so often, the ironic trade-off.

Though Peirse is charged with a moment of monumental existential crisis, she doesn’t show any measure of convincing distress: head in hands is something of a copout. In other respects, she’s persuasive as the successful, self-possessed, wildly ambitious medico, but she overdoes certain mannerisms (of speech, particularly) to an aggravating and grossly unreal degree. Menzies is also, gesturally, very ‘large”, even by Shakespearean standards so, again, one supposes this is a directorial decision. But, largely by dint of his verbosity and propensity to perpetually pontificate, Patrick is recognisable as a writer; a kind of Marr-Ellis lovechild. It’s also strangely overemphasised, with a kind of seething violence behind it, but Covich’s patronising putdown of Patrick is one of the darkest and most delicious confections of the play. Jones seemed both plausible and potent as Annie in her first scene, but oddly amateur and out of her element in her second, with a singsong delivery of which others were guilty, but which she took too far.

Best, perhaps, were Tahki Saul, as Joe’s smarter-mouthed teacher, Joe (Harry Greenwood) himself and Rebecca (Geraldine Hakewill). All seemed relatively unencumbered by the intensive affectations of most of the others; again, perhaps the dramaturgical strategy was to demonstrate dissonance between the hardened, rehearsed world views and inherited convictions of the elders, as against the hypocrisy evident to the inheritors. I certainly can’t think of another supportable premise or rationale for the performative outcomes.

Still staying with content from the very first scene, Rebecca remarks: “The truth is always more interesting than fiction.” One suspects she’s right. Certainly, in this play, it’s the kernels of experiential truth that inform exchanges that supersede the constructed fiction that is the plotline. Plot points are almost join the dots, as in the lesser David Williamson plays of recent times. There’s erudite genius here. The acting skew may represent a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma, but there’s wisdom, it seems, in every second line.

It could’ve been a two-handed conversation, rather than the story contrived, which seems redundant and, itself, a cave-in to convention. Pedestrian form. Posturing, rather than acting. But Murray-Smith gives her characters silver tongues, with which to incise her exceeding perspicacity.

The details: Fury plays the Wharf 1 theatre until June 8. Tickets on the company website.