Saturday, 2 July 2011

'The Gift' inspires debate

The Gift, by Melbourne playwright Joanna Murray-Smith, is certainly a play that gets you talking and thinking. On that level at least, I suppose you could say it works. However, I found the play to comprise two rather disjointed halves, rather than a coherent whole, and the central premise (once it was revealed in the second act) lacking in credibility.

The first act deals with two couples meeting on holiday. Ed and Sadie (Richard Piper and Heather Bolton) are childless, middle-aged, wealthy and jaded, looking for something to spice up their marriage. They actively befriend a younger couple, Martin and Chloe (Matt Dyktynski and Elizabeth Debicki ), a struggling conceptual artist and art journalist. Over the course of an evening, cleverly staged using a revolving set to suggest the progression of events, the two couples 'fall in love' with each other, vowing a relationship 'based on truth and honesty'. This is then followed by a boating expedition, during which Martin saves Ed from drowning, earning undying gratitude and the desire to bestow 'a gift' on the young couple.

The first act is pacy and dynamic, with snappy intellectual dialogue on topics such as the philosophy of art. Intermittantly throughout, Sadie (and sometimes Ed) addresses the audience directly in order to narrate sections of the story. Much of the time this worked, making the audience comfortable with their characters, but I didn't feel it was always necessary and when it came to the near-drowning incident and subsequent rescue I felt the narrative completely undermined the drama and emotional impact of the scene. Although I could feel the bond between the couples from the previous evening's drinking session, the debt of gratitude totally lacked resonance for me. A shame, really, because Act 2 relies on this heavily!

So now we come to Act 2, set a year later, after Martin and Chloe have had a year to think about what gift they'd like Sadie and Ed to bestow upon them. This is the crunch act, where we realise that Act 1 was really only a prologue. Act 2 is what the play is really all about . . .

Sadie and Ed are at home in some inner city condo apartment and we immediately see the impact of their encounter with Martin and Chloe (and the near-death experience). Their marriage is rejuvenated, they've discovered the joys of art, and they are humming along with gusto. Martin and Chloe, on the other hand, seem less impacted by the encounter, although Martin has made some progress in his career. But then they start to reveal the nature of the gift they'd like Sadie and Ed to bestow upon them . . .

To put it frankly, I found the second act in turns boring (its one single scene lacks the dynamism of the first act) and lacking in credibility. The rather shocking request is foreshadowed early, leaving Martin and Chloe floundering in repetitive rhetoric as they try to justify the unjustifiable to both themselves and their hosts. I don't think we have enough insight into their characters to empathise with their so-called predicament. Instead, they come across as totally unsympathetic, selfish and narcissistic. It made me reflect on how little these two couples actually knew of each other, after a single weekend.

However, if you think of Act 2 as black satire, where themes of parental fears/regrets, gratitude, selfishness, and changing one's mind are explored and pushed to the edge, it becomes a little more understandable -- and certainly thought-provoking. Even so, to me the second act felt like it was still in 'rough draft' form -- the dialogue wasn't nearly as tight as in the first act, and it felt really repetitive and one-dimensional.

The MTC version of this play was directed by US award-winning director Maria Aitken, and I thought the performances were fine. (I don't really feel qualified to comment on these aspects anyway!) The play script just felt undercooked to me. While the play inspired intellectual and philosophical debate, it lacked emotional resonance -- plus the imbalance in style between the two acts was jarring.

Here are two other more critical theatrical reviews: Cameron Woodhead and Theatre People.

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