‘As good a production of this play as you could want to see’: Ben Brooker on the revival of Stephen Sewell’s Welcome the Bright World at the STCSA
As a rule, left-wing Australian playwrights don’t take up ideas but ‘issues’, cribbed from newspaper headlines and thinly theatricalised, often to indifferent or, worse, doctrinaire effect. Stephen Sewell is an exception. His run of early, large-scale plays – Welcome the Bright World (1982), The Blind Giant is Dancing (1983), and Dreams in an Empty City (1986) – are rare in their ambition, epic canvases for the exploration of power and the relationship between the individual and society.
It says much about the timidity of Australian mainstream theatre companies that of these plays, only Blind Giant has been revived (most recently by Belvoir in 2016). As with the works of Patricia Cornelius – which, like Sewell’s, are grounded in naturalism but veined with the poetic and expressionistic – their main stage production history belies their influence.
So too their relevance, which, if anything, has increased over time. Sewell’s anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist vision of US hegemony and economic liberalisation feels vital at a time when socialist values have, in the wake of popular movements, entered the political mainstream through figures like Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Which isn’t to say that Sewell is always prescient, but that his plays are animated by an awareness of the broader sweep of historical and political forces, of their pitiless circularity, in a way that is rare in Australian naturalistic theatre.
While Chekhov and Ibsen, like Sewell, refracted the social and political through the interpersonal, Sewell narrows this gap so that larger forces – history, the state – seem to hover right over his characters, like a magnifying glass held above a group of ants. In Sewell’s work, nothing is avoided or made elliptical. For all their articulacy and supra-individual commitment – to family, friendship, ideology – the playwright’s characters, riven by compromise and betrayal, scrap like animals in a cage, reducing each other to a raw, almost pre-political state. It’s a recipe for electrifying, if occasionally exhausting, theatre that, at its best, lays bare the corrosive effects of structural power on human relationships.
I say “best” because Sewell’s recent output has tended to emphasise his flaws as a playwright, his didacticism and propensity for overstatement especially. His dramaturgy, always unwieldy, has become cruder of late, at its worst descending into a sort of cheap, Michael Moore-ish soup of liberal outrage (the fate, it must be said, of a lot of political theatre after 9/11, from Harold Pinter down). To revisit plays such as Welcome the Bright World is to be reminded of a time when Sewell’s anger had not yet outrun his ability to make an argument through dramatic means, namely event and interaction – in a word, plot – rather than dialogue alone.
As with most of Sewell’s early plays, Welcome the Bright World marries the form of a family drama with that of a political thriller. Its plot is dense and labyrinthine. Set mainly in Berlin and Wiesbaden in 1982, at the height of the Cold War, its principal characters are Max Lewin (Terence Crawford) and Sebastian Ashkenazi (Roman Vaculik), two German-Jewish intellectuals tasked with uncovering the final quark, at that time known as “truth”, thought to complete the picture of the physical universe.
Max’s wife, Anat (Jo Stone), is a fine art photographer engaged in her own search for the elemental, the real that lies beyond appearances (“I want the truth”, she says of her portraits). Under the watch of Dr Mencken (Patrick Frost), a former Nazi and now official in the police intelligence bureaucracy, Max is moonlighting as a consultant on an electronic surveillance network, part of an escalating anti-terrorist operation, the targets of which include the left-wing Sebastian and his lover, Rebekah (Georgia Stanley), who is Max and Anats’ daughter. Both are involved in a plot – in fact, part of a coup masterminded by Mencken – to assassinate Frankl (Anna Cheney), a Social-Democratic Party minister.
All this is worked out through various kinds of interpersonal relationships – familial, romantic, fraternal – which, over the course of the play’s three acts, accrue into more abstract tensions: between different classes, authoritarianism and social democracy, the uses and abuses of scientific inquiry and technological innovation by the state. Contemporary resonances abound, most obviously in the play’s concern with scientific and moral truth – as fraught as ever in the era of Trump and climate change – but also in its depiction of an unconstrained surveillance state (this week we learned that the Australian Government is establishing a new Office of National Intelligence, which, for the first time since the 1970s, will see Australia’s intelligence apparatus focus on domestic political activity). Even Max and Sebastians’ search for the truth quark feels roughly analogous to the recent discovery of the Higgs boson, the elementary particle sometimes called the “God particle”.
It makes for a riveting first half, a tumult of language and ideas propelled in this production – amazingly, the first since its premiere at Nimrod in 1982 under the direction of Neil Armfield – by powerhouse performances from Crawford, Vaculik, and Stanley, the latter making an impressive professional debut.
But while the high metaphor of the truth quark provides the work with a binding dramaturgy of sorts, Sewell isn’t able to fully synthesise his themes. Rather than resolving into catharsis or ambivalence, the play is ultimately consumed by its own intellectual and dramatic excesses, collapsing into incoherence.
Perhaps, in a sense, this is the point – that, for all the characters’ search for “truth”, meaning does not exist as some kind of extrinsic, discoverable substance or principle but must be wrought from experience, from our relationships to the world and to each other. But this is merely a guess. Rebekah’s monologue that bookends the play – “now the only meaning is no meaning at all” – rings with existentialist anguish but feels more nihilistic than absurd, a negation rather than culmination of the play’s logic.
Whatever the symbolism of the play’s framing in this way, it’s hard not to feel troubled by Sewell’s rendering of his female characters. While they are not without complex inner lives – the scenes between Anat and Fay (Anna Cheney), her friend and Sebastian’s wife, are among the play’s most psychologically convincing – they are for the most part relegated to the role of bystanders, their emotionality sharply differentiated from the men’s intellectuality. More problematic still is the role of Gabrielle (Georgia Stanley), whose exact nature is never made clear. Is she a shop assistant? A sex worker? An emanation from Max’s disturbed psyche? Each of these possibilities is in play, the ambiguity nevertheless leaving no doubt as to her function: a prop to Max’s story, and one with unmistakeable male fantasy overtones at that. In this context, the gender-swapping of the role of Frankl feels more like a workaround than anything else.
The production, as directed by Charles Sanders of independent theatre company House of Sand, is slick and taut. The dilapidated, empty shell venue the Queen’s Theatre is an atmospheric space, evocative of the punk aesthetic of 1980s Berlin. The theatre’s white walls provide an effective canvas for Owen McCarthy’s fluid, if at times overly literal, projections while Karla Urizar’s set, employing two elevated areas of timber floorboards on either side of the stage, neatly partitions the bourgeois world of the Lewins from a space that doubles as a frightening 1984-ish bureau and a bolthole occupied by Gabrielle. Mario Späte’s sound design shrewdly combines bubbling analogue-sounding synths with film noir-ish orchestral flourishes.
This is, I suspect, as good a production of this play as you could want to see. That it isn’t able to close the gap between Sewell’s reach and his grasp signals, more than anything else, the play’s irremediable dramaturgy. But there are simply too few audacious failures in Australian theatre not to welcome this overdue revival.
Welcome The Bright World by Stephen Sewell, directed by Charles Sanders. Designed by Karla Urizar, music by Mario Spate, lighting and AV designed by Owen McCarthy. Performed by Terence Crawford, Anna Cheney, Georgia Stanley, Patrick Frost, Max Garcia-Underwood, Jo Stone and Roman Vaculik. Queens Theatre, Adelaide, House of Sand and State Theatre Company of South Australia until October 6. Bookings
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