18/02/2016

Party animals: Belvoir’s The Blind Giant is Dancing

First produced thirty-three years ago, Stephen Sewell’s The Blind Giant is Dancing is often hailed as a modern Australian classic. And while it wears its passion and vehemence on its sleeve, it requires a good amount of assumed knowledge of the political context from which it was written; and even though party politics and factional in-fighting still continues to this day (it is something that will never quite go away), even though we now have ICAC, self-inflated housing bubbles, and besieged working class, and leadership which leaves a lot to be desired (to paraphrase Belvoir’s blurb), the ins and outs of Blind Giant’s political intrigue and machinations are a little too distant for us to fully grasp with clarity, and the result is a confusing, muddied, and long three hours.

Eamon Flack’s production at Belvoir is something of a passion piece for him, in that he has long wanted “to do this play, somehow or other, for a long time. If you’re familiar with Flack’s work over the past six years, the hallmark themes are present in Sewell’s play – “collective undertakings, shared undertaking, compassion, feminism, love…” These, in Flack’s words, are the antidote to the political and moral bastardry that sits at the heart of Blind Giant, things like “misogyny, guilt, aggression, egomania, sexual conquest, self-pity, paranoia, anger, righteousness, a singular and unbending point of view…” But as in a lot of Sewell’s work, the politics and aggressive drive of the argument or point of the play are unswerving, the fury behind every word unswerving, and it does tend to drastically eclipse the more gentle elements, and leaves a rather bleak aftertaste in your mouth.
In his book Belonging critic John McCallum writes, “in The Blind Giant is Dancing, Sewell draws on his skills in complex structure and multiple narratives to deal with the intersections between the political, corporate and criminal worlds of 1980s Australia… The analysis of even the most intimate of interpersonal relationships is uncompromisingly political. It looks at power in every arena and in all its forms, from the discursively constructed to the nakedly violent.” Dale Ferguson’s set nakedly exposes the theatre – a stripped back design to the concrete walls features a cage-like array of LED lights, and table and chairs which are brought on as required. The screen becomes a surtitle board, city-skyline, billboard, changing location and setting as needed; at its fullest – brightest - use, it is a wall of white light behind two candidates, in your face and blindingly so. Ferguson’s costumes are muted, and he does a fine line in the various shades of brown and beige suits worn by the politicians and political servants at the time. Verity Hampson’s lighting is crepuscular, keeps everything in vertical pools and shadows, highlighting sides of faces but never the whole; Steve Toulmin’s sound is a brash blast of horns, gloriously loud, a clarion call to arms, to wake-up and see things for what they are, mixed in with more subtle drones and the occasional period pop-song.
Headlined by Dan Spielman and Yael Stone as Allen Fitzgerald and his wife Louise Kraus, the cast make a fair job of Sewell’s rhetoric and political speak. Spielman brings us a man whose political ideals have not been matched by the party his hopes are invested in, and whose disillusionment is tangible; seeking change, he takes matters into his own hands, and is hoisted by his own petard, a victim of Faustian deeds and a guilty conscience. As his wife and, indeed, opposite in everything but passion, Stone’s Louise is more achingly human, more identifiable among Sewell’s cast of men, manipulators, and minions; her arguments about identity, self-worth, ideals, love, and of the world in general are not out of place with the movements of today, and shows that we have barely changed in thirty-odd years. Louise’s arguments are echoed by Allen’s mother, played with a grounded passion by Genevieve Lemon, who wants her husband to see beyond the patriarchal paradigm he relentlessly reaffirms, who wants her sons to love each other rather than hate, who wants people to speak their mind rather than sitting in silence and lies pretending all is fine. When these two convergent arguments come to a head late in Act Three, it is all you can do to thank god that someone is speaking a bit of reason in Sewell’s play, that someone is looking beyond the political bear-pit of egos and factional in-fighting, and is actually trying to rally for change. However, it is a case of the scenes coming a little too late in the play – and with not enough (if any) development afterwards – to make it seem as though they could bring about change in the characters’ world as in our own.
Like other writers who have appeared on Sydney’s stages in the past few years, I acknowledge the case that is often made as to their significance at the time of writing. Some plays changed the way we looked at drama, at theatricality, at the way it is written; other plays have formerly broken down sexual taboos and gender perceptions, and their place in the theatrical landscape is validated and necessary. But just because a play was important thirty-something years ago, does not mean it can be hauled out of the cupboard now and simply re-staged. Some plays, like The Blind Giant is Dancing, require a large amount of assumed knowledge of the political situation that prevailed at the time. And while politics hasn’t really changed in decades, and the same factions are still fighting each other, Blind Giant seems a period-piece regardless of the points it scores in voicing arguments about gender and sexual equality. True, as McCallum notes, Blind Giant might be one of “three great works that established [Sewell’s] reputation,” plays that “tackle big issues, cry out with a screaming passion that is individual, spiritual and political… But there is no doubt that they are the most important plays of their time.”

I admire Sewell’s passion, I do, but to be hit over the head with a shovel for three hours seems a long time to hammer home your point that if we want to affect change, we should not leave it in the hands of our politicians but rather use our heads before we open our mouths and take it into our own hands, speak with our own voices and feet. 

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