The cast of Small And Tired | Belvoir St Theatre (Pic: Brett Boardman)

Last night, I sat, mystified, as I watched a profile of Simon Stone on ABC-TV’s Artscape, indignantly rant and rave about critical reception to his decision to omit the southern drawl from the characters in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, intimating (as other insiders did) it was mere conservatism on the part of the commentariat that informed our collective disapproval. A little insulting, for mine, since I was quick to defend, against the tide, his earlier decision to tamper with Death Of A Salesman, going so far as to say I thought even Arthur Miller, were he around to witness it, might’ve said, “you know what, it’s better!”. But Williams’ classic is a different kettle of catfish, bound, as it is, so intimately to the very particular music and manners of that art of the US in which it’s set; almost a standalone country, culturally.

What’s good for the goose isn’t necessarily good for the gander and that’s the nub of the problem. There’s no science to it; no method to apply to the madness. It’s a judgment call. I don’t, however, recall the same sound and fury, masquerading as passion, emanating from his corner when subjected to the rigours of praise. The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, for better or worse, are as much part-and-parcel of offstage vagaries as on. It wouldn’t even rate a mention if I sensed consistency: if Simon was so confident in his assertion one of the principal strengths of this dead artform is that the audience can co-exist with an older, foreign play, being there and then, while still being here and now, why his penchant for editing, rewriting and inserting scenes? Surely this would prove redundant.

The fact is, as I see it, while Miller’s seminal work has a certain cultural, temporal and geographical specificity, it also is inflected with an intrinsic universality. William’s masterpiece is, on the other hand, much more aligned with a way of living that’s almost utterly remote. If one were to adapt the latter successfully, it would demand more than the superficial radicalism of fish ‘n’ chip shop streamers, strewn from one end of the stage to the other. Put it in Queensland cane country, or a remoter part of the Top End, in which the accents and familial brutality might prove credible.

I mention this by way of introduction to Kit Brookman’s current adaptation of the classic Greek myths centred around Orestes (which have served as a source for literature from Homer, through Pindar, Sophocles and Euripides, all the way to Robert Graves), because Brookman has managed to derive something so seamless, any reference to the ancients becomes almost incidental. It can survive with or without it and there’ll be those who, I suspect, were it not for the retention of the original character’s names, would be none the wiser to the play’s origins.

I’ve a friend, visiting as I write, who’s been living away for over 30 years. I asked him if there’s still a part that feels Australian. He answered candidly. No. He reminds me of Orestes (Luke Mullins), who’s been away a long time to the point where he’s become a foreigner in his own land. And family. Like my friend, who confesses prodigal, but reluctant, return only on the pretext of ageing parents, Orestes is back under duress, pressed into unwilling service by his inaccessible mother, Clytaemnestra (Sandy Gore) and cloyingly close, demented sister, Electra (Susan Prior), who’ve failed to come to the funeral party, relegating the dark duties to Orestes.

This jars all the moreso, since Orestes was long ago estranged from his father. But, as luck would have it, he runs into the disarming, younger Pylades (Tom Conroy) in a bar and the two becomes fast friends. And lovers. But Orestes is a restless soul, unable, try as he might, to reconcile with history, or family, so he determines from the moment his plane touches the tarmac, to head back to the family-free future from whence he came; that distant planet where guilt and pain reside in an emotional galaxy far, far away, or so we prefer to believe. The toughest call, though, is ending his affair with Pylades, which he effects in his characteristically surgical way.

It could almost be a gay Sex In The City, inasmuch as Brooman has managed to render this situation so throughly modern; despite meaningful connection acknowledged on both sides, time and circumstances don’t permit the pair’s prolonged union.

Even if not entirely apparent in the opening minutes, Conroy and (especially) Mullins mark out their performances with a believable and affecting naturalism that’s award-worthy, helped no end by the acuteness of Brookman’s writing and direction. I suspect dramaturg Anthea Williams might have lend a dab hand, to boot.

Mel Page’s set is minimal; she gives good suburban backyard, which somehow mnemonically captures all the swept-under-the-welcome-mat, repressed anxiety and nuclear reactivity of relos. Paul Gleeson, as Jim (my partner was particularly tickled that, amongst all the classical Greek names, he should be dubbed such), Electra’s patient and long-suffering hubby, fits this lawnscape like a motor mower. He sublimates his angst by planting himself in the garden, deliberately shrouding his hurt behind a dense, almost impenetrable hedge. It’s what blokes do, eh? Gleeson, too, is grand.

While listening to Gore’s velvet voice is always akin to an aural orgasm and while her reserve was certainly relative to the role, I still found her Clytemnaestra too brittle and dry, while Prior’s manic intensity was discernible in her eyes; a rose by any other name might smell as sweet, but what if  grafted to a triffid?

If ever we should doubt love is a four-letter word, Small and Tired, which so aptly describes our practically inevitable lot in this endeavour, spells it out.

The details: Small And Tired plays Belvoir’s Downstairs Theatre until November 3. Tickets on the company website.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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