The cast of Seminar | Ensemble Theatre

A short season, but a good one. Ensemble’s production of Theresa Rebeck’s Seminar seemed to go by in the blink of an eye; more’s the pity, as this was one of the best the lower north shore Sydney theatre has done.

William Zappa stood in where Alan Rickman (subsequently, Jeff Goldblum) first did, on Broadway, as Leonard, a truculent, oversexed, failed writer, who hold court as an expensive tutor to a small group of handpicked aspirants. Zappa is practically unbeatable in the role, scouring and scalding the fragile egos of his ambitious, or at least hopeful, students, in no-holds-barred barrages of scathing criticism.

Kate (Matilda Ridgway), Martin (Matthew Zeremes), Douglas (Felix Gentle) and Izzy (Michelle Lim Davidson) could hardly be less alike. Leonard’s merciless rhetorical blasts are first directed at Kate, whose Upper West Side apartment is the venue for confrontations and consummations. In order to hang onto some sort of street cred, she seems reluctant to own up to the peppercorn rental arrangement she has with her wealthy family. Leonard doesn’t like the story she’s been working on for years and lets her really have it, belittling and dismissing her in politically incorrect terms. The fact they end up in bed together (something that seems almost inevitable where the charismatically cranky Leonard is concerned) is another matter.

Martin resists presenting anything to Leonard. After all, he’s seen what happened to Kate. Any dreams, no matter how remote, she might’ve harboured of pursuing a vocation as a writer have been scuttled. For Martin, though, there seems to be even more at stake. It’s as though being pronounce a failure as a writer will render him a failure, per se, at life. No doubt there are writers  and other creatives, actual and would be, who will identify in substance, or at least romantically. Everyone wants to be seen to suffer for their art, don’t they?

Douglas talks a lot and Martin takes an immediate dislike to him, as he comes across as pretentious. In truth, Martin probably doesn’t like the fact that he usurps the pretentious territory he’d otherwise solely occupy. And Douglas might just know a thing or two, which Martin doesn’t seem to like, either. Douglas comes at things more pragmatically; his father has literary connections, so he doubtless feels more secure in his prospective tenure.

Izzy is more benign, unfazed and go-wit-the-flow. She’s the only one who doesn’t really become embroiled in the numerous conflicts that arise between members of the loose-knit, but claustrophobic and incestuous, group. She has no compunction about spicing-up her scribblings with suggestive, or downright explicit, material. She wants to get published. Not does she have a problem succumbing to Leonard’s unsubtle, hands on overtures. Nor can Martin or Douglas keep their eyes off her. Fatally, Martin falls for her, having already left breadcrumbs for Kate to pick-up. And this right under Kate’s nose. And roof. But just when Martin convince himself he’s in love with Izzy and she with him, news of her, ah, affiliation, with Leonard comes to light. By the time Martin rebounds in Kate’s direction, he learns she, too, has fallen for the crude charms of the erudite rough diamond.

That might all sound soap operatic, but it somehow doesn’t come off that way. Rebeck seems to harbour some sympathy for all these characters, even while taking to their middle-class expectations of success with a machete. Leonard appraises work having read mere phrases. And a spectre of plagiarism hangs over him. Essentially, he’s part renaissance, part dirty, old man and an incongruously oversexed misogynist. Douglas seems to think his nepotistic fallback position (relaying on his old man’s associations) will get him through, even if Leonard reckons he should go straight to Hollywood, as he’s cookie-cut for low-brow churning of scripts. Kate would have us believe she’s committed to writing, but has been reworking the same short story since college, because people have told her it’s good. Her narcissism is ripe for deflation and she gets her just desserts, quickly abandoning her professed passion. The key focus is on Martin, the only one who, in the end (as opposed to his reluctance in the beginning), puts his talent on the line, allowing it to be scrutinised by the pitiless Leonard. In other words, Martin embarks on a journey, not knowing his destination. He takes risks: the first duty of a real writer.

Anna Crawford tautly directs 90 compelling minutes. And it’s a relief a play about writer and writing should be so well-written. Ailsa Paterson’s design (and its execution) is a reflection of one of the things Ensemble, at its best, does best: build realistic sets that transport you to the place the playwright intends you to be. Crawford has assembled a very gifted cast, from whom she extracts, I think, the very best they have to give. I know that’s a lot of ‘bests’, but there are quite a number of personal and collective bests associated with this work. Crawford has made the correct call, too, in sticking with American accents: the literary, academic and publishing milieu and references all pertain to that continent, so any attempt at transposition or adaptation is more than likely to have fallen very flat.

Given that this play is all about writers and writing, in a specifically New York way to boot, it could easily have lapsed into a self-indulgent rant for a niche market; yet it seems to retain broad appeal, which is a tribute to both play and production. With shows like this (and Frankenstein, earlier in the year) Ensemble threatens to (re)take its place at the leading edge of Sydney theatre.

The details: Seminar played the Ensemble Theatre from August 15 to September 14.