Despite a sumptuous production, Aidan Fennessy’s new play The Architect leaves Alison Croggon with some nagging questions
Spoilers within. CW: Euthanasia
Adain Fennessy’s The Architect, which premiered this week at the Melbourne Theatre Company, comes garlanded in solemn guarantors of its significance. Its subject is one of the weightiest of all: death itself. “Can we prepare for something as monumental as non-existence?” asks the playwright in his program essay, quoting Andrei Tarkovsky and Oscar Wilde. In pre-publicity, it’s been coupled with Death of a Salesman and August: Osage County. This is, we are told, a play.
And yes, it certainly is a play, given a sumptuous production by Peter Houghton, his production team and a top-flight cast. On opening night it was received rapturously. People wept in their seats.
I found myself, once again, being a killjoy. Thinking of Wilde only called up his quip that “a little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal”. Not that I necessarily agree with Wilde on this; in an age in which irony too often substitutes for feeling, we could do with a bit more sincerity. My problem was that I didn’t really feel anything.
Peter Houghton’s rather beautiful production for me enhanced the play’s weaknesses: it made me feel that it should be a lot better than it is. Matt Scott’s lighting – featuring shadows sweeping across the set between scenes – is, like J. David Franzke’s sound design, unobtrusively gorgeous, generating a surprising expressiveness from Christina Smith’s impressive set. And it’s cast extremely well; all the performances are well-rounded and felt, capturing the complexities and nuance of the four characters. And it was nice, for once, to watch a production that wasn’t mic’d.
We meet Helen Pyefinch (Linda Cropper) as her partner John Stafford (Nicholas Bell) is anxiously preparing for a trip overseas. They are comfortably middle class – we’re in the living area of an expensive modern house, with huge feature windows looking out on a lawn with ghost gums palely thrusting through the shadows. From the beginning we know that something is wrong: although John is only leaving for a week, they are interviewing carers for Helen.
These scenes make clear that Fennessy’s strength is in dialogue. As this couple needle each other, comically bickering over domestic details, we can see John’s neediness and Helen’s irritation with his fuss and, underneath, their love for each other. We find out later that Helen is suffering from terminal brain cancer, and that John’s trip, rather than being an important conference as is initially hinted, is to follow his passion. He is a mediaeval enthusiast, and is flying to Europe to be part of a re-enactment of the 1513 Battle of Flodden.
Helen clearly wants a break from John’s anxious micro-managing, which infantilises her. John won’t go until they’ve picked a carer, and she’s liked none of them so far. The latest interviewee seems the most unsuitable of all: for a start, he’s man, while Helen has stipulated she wants a woman. When Lenny (Johnny Carr) enters, he is also very clearly a working class man. He’s wearing a flannelette shirt, a beard and an ocker accent, has no formal qualifications whatsoever and lives in his car. But, from a mixture of innate perversity and her desire for a handyman to fix up the house, Helen decides that he’s the one.
Lenny is a middle class fantasy of a working class man. Despite his unpromising appearance – his tattoos are mentioned several times – he turns out to be perfect. He’s aware of his employers’ prejudices and unresentfully ribs them. He’s very kind and very handsome. He instantly fixes up the record player that’s been moribund for years. He’s a gourmet chef, and was even on Masterchef. And a tragedy in his past gives him an acute insight into Helen’s situation.
None of these things is particularly improbable. What’s troubling is Lenny’s function in the play. He’s the white working class version of a very recognisable trope, the “magical negro”. As the useful site TV Tropes explains, “In order to show the world that minority characters are not bad people, one will step forward to help a ‘normal’ person, with their pure heart and folksy wisdom…They step into the life of the much more privileged (and, in particular, almost always white) central character and, in some way, enrich that central character’s life.”
This is precisely what happens in The Architect. Lenny solves everything, bringing together the dysfunctional men in this family, making them face their own dishonesties and griefs. He brings a late joy to Helen’s life. And, most troubling of all, he becomes the mechanism that helps Helen to her real desire, a “good death”.
The other major problem in this play, ironically enough given its title, is its structure. Even the most naturalistic play is an artificial construction that merely creates the illusion of real life. But it’s also a machine, each part carefully shaped to generate the drama. As it progressed, turning its purpose from a satirical comedy about class in Australia to a drama about euthanasia, I increasingly felt that the actors, who generated most of the feeling in the production, were running uphill against the script.
The Architect presents itself as an up-and-down old-fashioned naturalistic play, of a kind we see a lot out of the US. There’s a virtue to the well-made play, and I’m old-fashioned enough to enjoy good writing. And there’s no denying that Fennessy can write: the characters are complex, the dialogue often sharp. But the larger dramaturgy is loose and, as the play lumbers to its inevitable end, increasingly clumsy.
At more than two and a half hours it’s slow moving, with a lot of repetition that simply reinforces a prior idea: there’s a significant lack of the “perpetual slight surprise” that keeps your attention from wavering. The script needs some sharp dramaturgy, of the kind that’s prepared to cut a well-written scene for the sake of the whole. It seems cross-grained, uncertain what kind of play it is, or, at the very least, with its themes unintegrated.
This becomes very evident after interval. A significant character, Helen’s estranged son Jeremy (Stephen Phillips), turns up late in the piece, bringing with him a bunch of new complexities and signalling the play’s turn to seriousness. The final scene is excruciating, long-winded and weighty. I found its earnest sincerity embarrassing, mainly because by this point I had stopped believing in the plot.
Jeremy’s entrance, coupled with John’s unexpected return from his overseas trip, sparks a huge blow up, the climax of the play. Jeremy accuses Lenny of being a criminal with sinister designs on Helen’s will, and Lenny walks out. Helen, furious with the men in her life, loses it and then collapses.
In the long denoument, we witness the family, wiser now, making a ceremony: a pre-death wake. Surprisingly, Lenny is present too, if rather uneasily on the edge of things. He has returned to be the compassionate dealer of death, because someone has to: Jeremy, horrified at the thought of his mother’s death, has thrown out the expensive drugs she is hoarding for the moment when she makes her choice and becomes the architect of her life.
I couldn’t help wondering why a man who has known a family for a few days should risk a murder charge and the trauma of killing someone. In a real-life case where a son smothered his terminally-ill mother, he was wracked by PTSD and attempted suicide. As the ideal working class youth with a heart of gold, Lenny serves his function, leaving the other men to deal with their sorrow without the burden of guilt.
But, as I said, this scene left other audience members sobbing. Your mileage may vary.
The Architect, by Aidan Hennessy, directed by Peter Houghton. Set and costume designs by Christina Smith, lighting design by Matt Scott, composition and sound design by J David Franzke. Performed by Nicholas Bell, Linda Cropper, Johnny Carr and Stephen Phillips. The Sumner, Southbank Theatre, Melbourne Theatre Company. Until October 31. Bookings
Contains themes of euthanasia, coarse language and the use of theatrical haze. For detailed information about the production’s content click here.
At Southbank Theatre is wheelchair accessible and offers hearing assistance.
The Architect will be audio described at 6.30pm on Tuesday October 9, and at 4pm on Saturday October 13, with a tactile tour at 3pm prior to the Saturday performance.
Captions are available via a screen for the performance at 8pm on Thursday October 18.