Robert Reid reviews Fury, Joanna Murray-Smith’s exploration of middle-class extremism, and is unimpressed.
So much white on stage. White Walls. White floor. White curtains that don’t quite work as a scrim. White anxieties.
Joanna Murray-Smith’s Fury, which premiered at the Sydney Theatre Company in 2013, has been given a new production for Red Stitch. It attempts an exploration of extremism within wealthy white suburban Australia. The play is suffused with a sense that eternal vigilance is the price of freedom, making the case that extremism (in this instance racism but by implication sexism, homophobia, transphobia, etc) grows like a cancer even in the nice, wealthy, white, lefty communities of inner-suburban Australia.
Fury tells the story of a mother and father discovering their teenage son has begun harbouring extremist anti-Muslim, views and has acted on them by defacing a local mosque. The son, Joe (Sean Rees-Wemyss) has been caught on camera and his parents, Alice (Danielle Carter) and Patrick (Joe Petruzzi) have been called into the (private) school to hear the news from (I think) the Deputy Principal, Warren (Dushan Phillips). This revelation triggers a bewildered, defensive and increasingly urgent re-examination of how these two understand and have raised their son.
There is very little in the space (design by Chloe Greaves). It’s a stark, white box, with a desk or a couch or combinations of a few props to indicate that the location of the scene has changed. The curtains can be drawn closed at speed, fluttering like sheets on a washing line in the wind of a storm. They’re kind of see-through; we can almost make out the distorted bodies of the crew moving the curtains and once or twice we can just see the actors lit in transition. The almost antiseptic space draws our focus irresistibly towards the argument being staged by the work, which I’ll come to in a moment.
I can’t say for certain after only one viewing, but my feeling is that Alice and Patrick go through the stages of grieving in reaction to the news of what their son has done. First they’re in denial: this terrible thing can’t have been their son’s doing, or at least that he must have been influenced by someone else. They confront him and lose their tempers: Alice goes so far as to punch her son in the face, though this is never really dealt with or even brought up again, so I guess it isn’t important?
Alice and Patrick then go to meet the parents of the other boy involved, a working-class couple whose son, Ethan, only shares Joe’s private school on a sports scholarship. They discover that Ethan’s dad, Bob (Chris Connelly), thinks and talks a bunch of casually racist anti-Muslim bullshit. And so mystery solved, right? Joe has picked up this new found extremism from the working class boy’s dad and it wasn’t his or their responsibility really after all.
Except, like the neurotic, self-hating lefties they are, Alice and Patrick can’t let it go and, while they are distracted by their descent into anxious depression, trying to negotiate their liberal guilt and their resentments of each other, Joe’s extremist behaviour is showing signs of escalating. Alice and Patrick seem to have reached acceptance by the final moments of the play, which is chilling when you realise what Joe may be in the process of doing next.
They ask themselves, throughout, how? How did it come to this? They stutter and repeat and struggle to articulate it until Alice finally asks: “Have we made a monster?” Alice and Patrick know the answer, as we do, and their acceptance by the end seems to be of their powerlessness in the face of it all.
It’s very telling that the actual victims in this story – the Muslim community attacked by Joe and Joe’s hapless working-class friend, who loses his scholarship – never appear on stage and are never given their own voice. Moreover, the extremist views that Fury explores are only expressed in the play by ignorant people– the angry teenager, the working-class father – so they come across as a straw man. Bob complains that “the Muslims are coming here and taking our jobs”. Joe rails that “Muslims are all terrorists killing innocents so they can sleep with virgins”. These things are put in the mouth of hate-filled but sympathetic characters. Their assertions are only challenged directly, when Warren (the only person of colour on stage) explains the actual meanings of Jihad and Sharia Law. Warren is perhaps one of the least sympathetic characters. He’s blunt to the point of being rude, he doesn’t care about the students, and is most concerned about how the students’ actions reflect on the school’s reputation.
As for the rest, the racist bluster is politely hem-hemmed away.
It strikes me that there is a great deal of shorthand in this work. In the opening moments, for instance, Alice and Patrick are arguing over who is responsible for her professional success and his artistic failure. She resents, and rightfully so, that she has had to work twice as hard as men half as smart as her to get not quite as far. He’s been working on a second novel for years but hasn’t published because he’s “scared of what happened last time”, (it’s never made specific what happened last time) and he lacks ambition. The relationship between them feels perfunctory, like characters cribbed from any number of earlier Murray-Smith works, The Female of the Species, maybe, or The Gift.
One moment in the breathless neurosis stands out as something uniquely its own. Alice pleads with Joe to explain to her why he did this thing, why he thinks these things, and he in his turn recounts a vision he had watching training after school. Blood and body parts, an explosion perhaps, death and destruction. These are classic intrusive thoughts and signs of high stress and anxiety. But rather than peruse this to unpack what may actually be wrong with Joe, we go to blackout. The production is punctuated by blackouts and scene endings that invariably end with a line like a rim shot. Pithy, wry, they score an inescapable, heavy rhythm into the play. I wonder what is gained heralding the end of each scene like this.
Murray Smith’s work occasionally reminds me of David Williamson’s, but Fury is the play that for me is most reminiscent of Williamson’s work so far, most notably in its sketchy handling of the teenage character. It’s written with a specific voice, a generational one perhaps, and it speaks very directly to its particular audience. This is what I mean about shorthand. There are signs and signifiers in the work that resonate for their audience and so feel complete to them, but are perhaps less fulfilling for those outside that circle. But as with Williamson, Murray-Smith’s audience is a faithful one and they come and laugh along at the shared cultural perspective. For me, there were a lot of things the audience snickered at that made me wonder who we’re supposed to identify with.
Something dark and evil has been growing beneath everything Alice and Patrick thought they knew. They ask Joe, “with all the books, the people, the discussions we’ve had and you’ve been exposed to – how did this happen?” But they never stop to hear the answer and Joe can’t give it anyway, because he’s not a cause, he’s a symptom.
The play does present a cause, of a sort, for Joe’s nascent fascism. Towards its close Joe goes to Ethan’s home to collect some things he left there, and confronts Bob. He tells him that he used to look up to him because of his anti-Muslim stance. Bob seems to know that Joe is dangerous and senses his own complicity, and so offers the defence that he was “just saying stuff.” This only prompts Joe’s betrayed and pathetic response “but you said stuff.”
Fury answers the question “how did this happen” in classic patriarchal heteronormative form. In their final argument, which returns to their resentments towards each other, Alice tells Patrick that if he had been a better (read, stronger) father figure, a sterner disciplinarian, Joe wouldn’t have turned to his working-class friend’s father for a role model. As a result, this nice, privileged, politically correct family are compromised by the benighted racist working class.
Because a boy needs his father.
Fury is Witness’s June Live Night. Join us for a drink and lively debate on Saturday, June 30. Details here.
Fury by Joanna Murray-Smith, directed by Ella Caldwell and Brett Cousins. Sets and costume design by Chloe Greaves, lighting design by Kris Chainey, sound design by THE SWEATS. Performed by Joe Petruzzi, Danielle Carter, Chris Connelly, Shayne Francis, Dushan Philips and Sean Rees-Wemyss. At Red Stitch until July 1. Bookings
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