Garden-variety tragedy: STC & STCSA’s Machu Picchu

Sue Smith’s latest play Machu Picchu is, glibly, about “finding hope amidst the ruins” of a relationship. Following a car accident, husband and wife Paul and Gabby must navigate their way around the complications and learn to love each other despite their physical barriers, and try and cling onto the shred of hope they have left as good people to be able to lead good, fulfilling, ‘normal’ lives. Smith’s play is about the “garden variety tragedy,” as director Geordie Brookman writes in his director’s note – “the sort of life changing-event that could impact any one of us at any moment.” The only trouble is, the play isn’t terribly compelling, nor does it offer any particular insights into the human condition or make any credible argument as to how to live a ‘good’ life despite the setbacks, hardships, and tragedies.

Smith’s previous play for STC and STCSA, Kryptonite, tackled socio-political tensions between China and Australia through its two main characters. In Machu Picchu, Smith’s cast blossoms out to six, but the core of the play revolves around Gabby (Lisa McCune) and Paul (Darren Gilshenan) and the way they navigate their private (and occasionally public) tragedy, and the way they navigate their blossoming attraction for each other in staged flashbacks. Smith’s writing is awkward, expository, and functional, but it doesn’t hold many secrets or dramatic tension to keep us, the audience, guessing or wanting to know more. Our interest is not maintained, and therefore the play seems uninteresting, even though Smith’s central dramatic question is very much a valid one – namely, how do you remain a good person in the face of personal tragedy – and certainly one worth exploring dramatically in a number of guises. While there are some humorous moments in Smith’s play, a lot of its appeal has to do with age and experience – it is written for and with a very specific audience in mind, one that has shared the experiences of her characters, maybe not to the letter but in spirit, and the play’s reception seems to confirm this. By not being of that age group or with those experiences, I don’t know if I’m missing something in the dramatic exploration of the play’s concerns, or if the play simply isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
I’m not saying this out of any sort of malice, or to denigrate the time and effort and skills that have gone into creating this production, because there are some nice touches here – Geordie Brookman’s direction keeps the play moving, keeps Smith’s story moving forwards, and makes sure the cast hit the right notes. Jonathon Oxlade’s set transforms into separate spaces, and cleverly redirects the eye to conceal set-changes. Nigel Levings’ lighting is concise and colourful, with a clever evocation of passing car lights, and much effective use of backlighting. Alan John’s compositions disguise the “garden-variety” script, and lend a much-needed sense of optimism to proceedings, while Andrew Howard’s sound design evokes hospitals, backyards, lecture halls and other locations with economy and precision.
Brookman’s cast features actors Lisa McCune and Darren Gilshenan in roles which perhaps go against their popular image, but they don’t seem challenged by this or in any way suited to these particular roles. Known for his comedic skills on television as much as in the theatre, Gilshenan gets little by way of showcasing this. McCune, more recently known for her roles in big-budget stage musicals as much as dramatic roles on television, similarly gets little to showcase her skills, though she fares slightly better in that she isn’t confined to a hospital bed for a large part of the proceedings, unlike Gilshenan. Luke Joslin’s Marty is a seemingly two-dimensional easy-going character, while his wife Kim (Elena Carapetis) is a louder and brighter character, though no less sturdy. Annabel Matheson, as Paul and Gabby’s daughter Lucy, holds some weight, but is not afforded the opportunities you might expect from a character who is training to become a doctor. Renato Musolino’s Lou, a new-age psychologist, is tonally inconsistent, although he does try to get Paul to see the light in one sense or another.
Billed as “delicate but unflinching,” Machu Picchu certainly explores the issues of love, loyalty, and healing, but without the integrity and dramatic grit they deserve. There is more in this play to unpack – more ideas, more resonances, more depths; more territory to cover – and the seeds are well and truly there; it just needs a careful and nurturing dramaturgical gardener to prune back the overgrown foliage from the stone walls, and to clear the mud and leaves from the paths before we can walk on them and experience the once-grand city of Machu Picchu for ourselves. In a time when politicians offer no financial, economic, or political help to those who need it most, when groundswell movements’ voices are not heard anywhere near as loudly as they deserve, when basic human rights are denied and/or abused, we need to find ways to be good people, be decent people, to each other and to people we don’t know, people we’ve never met before; we need to find ways to share compassion and kindness, to spread caring and open-mindedness, to not let the darkness overwhelm us and drag us down into its depths.  

As it stands, Smith’s Machu Picchu is not the great city it once was, although the foundations are buried within this play; perhaps more time and resources are needed to bring it into the daylight it deserves.

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