I’ve been typing. I have been sitting here typing. There are four sentences half-formed and mangled below this sentence. It’s been five days or so since seeing The Business and I have been sitting on it. At times like this I think of my patient, fluffy white-haired Professor Gay McAuley urging me in my undergrad days to calm down in my knee jerk responses to theatre, to take my time and cool down. It’s something I’m not good at when it comes to theatre. It feels too immediate to be complacent or calm about. It feels like I shouldn’t can’t give it space… Like the signals through the fire from Artaud’s imagination. And since my undergrad days… over time I guess not a lot has changed. Well, somethings have changed. When I first started reviewing I would turn around a review in 12 hours… in fact… that carried on until 2009… when I thought better of it and I’d give myself 24 hours. I have just found out that I have been asked to write a review for www.australianstage on this production which I will later tonight – and there is a difference between the two sites/modes of writing and thinking. So this is not a review. This is a response. When I write for I have a deadline of 48 hours and i am writing a review. For this site – well… it varies – I am usually writing a response and I write about my own personal context/thinking around the play’s ideas/industry context. This site is really the place where I am at my most honest and intimate – and sometimes I need some time to listen to what I really think. And sometimes I just want to prove to myself that just because I write for myself, doesn’t mean my boss isn’t a bastard. She is.

There’s been some response to The Business. Check out the responses – Diana Simmonds, or SMH or even the Daily Telegraph – but there is something in John McCallum’s response that catches my eye…

Two ideas in fact – “A program note claims this is “the missing work in Australia’s dramatic canon”, but anyone who was around in the 1980s – the period in which Jonathan Gavin’s play and Cristabel Sved’s production is set – will remember the theme well. David Williamson, Louis Nowra and Stephen Sewell all wrote about it.”


“There are some moments when the spirit of the original surfaces.”

OK. Time for me to back up…

Firstly, there are a couple of things I have to declare…and for those who came along and heard me talk at the launch of Short Circuit in 2009 (Griffin’s publication of Short plays) you would have heard my outrageous public declaration of how much I am completely in love with Jonathan Gavin. I believe him to be one of the finest writers, ever.

Not just Australian writers.

Not just living writers.

He is one of the finest writers, ever.

What sets him above and apart from many writers is his ease in balancing truth with perspective, poetic language with naturalistic dialogue, brutal action with finely tuned intellect. His characters are flawed, loveable, broken, robust, funny, sharp, people full of complex and uncompromising quirks. The stories he tells are of love, patience, human ugliness, disappointment and fragility – but always with a sly grin.

Those that saw Bang (Belvoir 2010) know his capacity to structure a story, wrestle a character and devastate/delight an audience.

So it was with great anticipation I introduced my theatre date to The Business. Before the lights dimmed, he asked me what I hope to expect from that evening’s performance – I replied something in the order of “some fragile yearning, a great moment of brutal hilarity, followed by a moment of severe and devastating reckoning, an out-loud laugh and perhaps even to shed a tear…”

I don’t know Vassa Zheleznova by Maxim Gorky – it’s not a play I’ve read- not a play I’m likely to read (not with the whack of new plays by writers sitting on my desk awaiting my attention). I am aware that many of the artistic directorate of Belvoir have a fascination with the Russian writers (remember that rash of Russian that spread its way through Sydney theatres in 2009?) – so I am not surprised that a commission was born out of a desire to re-invent 100 years on. Interesting to choose Jonathan Gavin for this project and to produce it in the upstairs theatre (one would think Van Badham would be absolutely ready to tackle a commission like this…). Interesting to see this play in the uber company context of Belvoir as the younger generation inheriting the Belvoir brand/space from the older guard and making it their own. And this is a play which looks at women in positions of power and has Cristabel Sved in the director’s chair.

I’ve been reading the play – lucky for me, Gavin’s script is also the program. I can read the play, without the clutter/distraction of the design. And it is a well written play. interestingly, the draft that is published went to print before rehearsal, so the play in text form is very different to that in production and so I think it is only fair that I separate out Gavin’s script from Sved’s production.

Largely it appeared that the look of the play – the design – overwhelmed the message of the play. The style, not the content was the star of the show. What they were wearing seemed more important than what they were saying. And what they were saying, is pretty clear – money makes people ugly and rips families apart. However, this message is difficult to be transformed by when the portraits are so cartoonish, cliche and linear, and basic in their presentation… I was waiting for the moment when I liked, or understood or felt compassion for any of the characters – it didn’t happen. And that is my bias – it is something I do need in order to connect with a story. And it was Kate Box’s portrayal of Anna which I felt gave the play the seriousness, the sensitivity and the gravitas to make the message more powerful. It is clearly Anna’s play – but I’m not sure if it was intended to be – surely this was to be Van’s story – about the survival of a woman desperate to retain what is hers, in a family of selfish narcissists?

Was that Gorky’s intent? look, I have no idea. I don’t know his play – and frankly, i’m not really interested in a 100 year old Russian play – BUT I am interesting in a brand New Australian play or a brand new Australian adaptation. Frankly, all this talk of Gorky seems a tad irrelevant if the play is made, set in and about Australia.

Now this all depends how important the original text is in relation to the new work. For me, I try to encounter a new work, as a new work – even if it is inspired from an older/classic text. Strangely in text it is written that this is set in the 1980s. And i can’t help but wonder why? If it is so, as dramaturg Eamon Flack asserts, that –

“The Business is the play that the quintessential Australian playwright David Williamson never had the stomach to write… no Australian playwright in the 80s managed to deliver quite the mix of savagery, immaturity, excess and dramatic crassness that the decade truly deserved…”

But I have to ask – why does this/my generation care? Why do we care about the 80s? Why are we talking about that time- hasn’t the bull bolted and now we are left closing the gate? Where is the savagery, immaturity, excess and dramatic crassness that this decade deserves?

I was born in 1979. I was a child in the 80s. That 80s excess was the boom to the 90s bust, then the 00s conservatism. And now we are in the 10s- a rise of youthful entrepreneurial-ism which for many may look like a new era of excess the late 00s (pre GFC) may have looked like the new millennium’s 80s, for which now the post GFC backlash of the late 00s/early 10s is the new 90s disillusion.

My question then is – why is the savagery not directed at ourselves – our generation? Why is this set in the 80s and not now? Such a move or choice surely dilutes the King hit to our own generation – we are removed from the sting of the punch as we sit laughing at/reminiscing at the Ker-Plunk game on the table, squirming at the shoulder pads and the Tab jingle. We laugh at and react to the design, before we listen and relate to the message. Why is the nastiness and selfish of the current “me” generation not being ripped apart in front of our eyes in a familiar setting? Shall we wait another 25-30 years before we can see a story of our current political and personal ugliness? And so i agree with Flack “nothing that happens in The Business isn’t still happening” – I agree, so why not just set it now? Why not set it in “no time?” and let us the audience make the connections, instead of creating a pseudo-museum piece? i think the design, as beautifully executed as it was, distracted from the writing. I also think that the design informed the performances – and i wonder how, it this was treated in a neutral or contemporary or abstract design who that would change the performances?

Largely, I think the directorial tone of this production skewed the play. It is true that Gavin’s writing is at times has elements of large behaviour or absurd, eloquent proclamations- it’s a part of the humour. But in playing to the humour, you lose the humanity – and if you lose the humanity (the sadness of someone on morphine, dying for example – even if they are a bastard), you lose the tragedy and if you lose the tragedy, I believe you’ve lost the comedy. A sense of humour absolutely depends on a sense of human. And for me, this production forgot the importance of human.

However, I am sure I am alone in this opinion. And that’s Ok. I wasn’t there on opening night- so I can’t really relate to Diana Simmonds’ experience mentioned in her review- she loved it. The night I attended the young punters around me groaned and exclaimed their repulsion at the fashion and the music – punters talking over the top of the dialogue… punters in their 20’s?

For me, the farcical presentation ignored the heart of the play – the heart being that of the ugliness of family, families destroyed by greed and selfishness – the mercenary nature of business (regardless of the fact it’s a family business). And so I guess I got the message but like that of a meal made of Tab and cheezels it still left me wanting something more nourishing.