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e-dition july 12

tough love, rough hate

keith gallasch: jonathan gavin, the business, belvoir

John Leary, Samantha Young, Jody Kennedy, Thomas Henning, The Business John Leary, Samantha Young, Jody Kennedy, Thomas Henning, The Business
photo Heidrun Löhr

The corresponding failure of public empathy over issues like asylum-seeking (save at the safe distance offered by donating to charities subsequent to natural disasters) and the reinvigoration of 19th century-style philanthropy (as the gap between wealth and poverty again radically widens) provides the depressing context for Belvoir's production of Jonathan Gavin's bitterly funny The Business. It's set in the 1980s, the very period in which the 'greed is good' ethos was getting into its public stride—and we still march to its insistent step in 2011. The world of The Business feels quite like home.

Grossly self-obsessed behaviour is central to Gavin's bitter-black comedy of bad manners and inheritance snatching, with director Cristabel Sved and costume designer Stephen Curtis wickedly ramping up the rude behaviour and appalling dress sense of the characters to the edge of grotesquerie, but somehow without losing the sense of these people as real, thwarted and, at times, oddly innocent and certainly pathetic—such is their tunnel-vision of the world.

Gavin and Sved took their cue for The Business from Russian writer Maxim Gorky's grim, sometimes comic play, Vassa Zheleznova, which premiered in 1911 and was later a favourite of Stalin who saw it many times, presumably enjoying the agonies of a bourgeois family in their act of self-destruction (and enforcing changes to the play in 1935 to suit his tastes). Gavin's play is based on Gorky's; it is not an adaptation. But in both there is a shared, strong focus on the female characters.

In Gorky's original, Vassa, wife to a shipping agent, Zheleznova, is relieved when her husband dies—at the end on Act 1 as opposed to the wrenching, protracted and off-stage decline in Gavin's play which ups the suspense and complications of the mother and her disaffected daughter's machinations to secure the inheritance the household patriarch would have denied them. Zheleznova's death is also a relief because the charge of raping a 12-year-old servant girl will now not go to court. Vassa battles on alone, corralling daughters and servants, bribing dockworkers and police and bickering with her estranged socialist daughter (torn between motherhood and the life of a revolutionary) over possession of the latter's child. The pressure is such that Vassa dies at the play's end, an exhausted manipulator. Gorky's empathy for her is limited, but he makes it clear that as well as being a nasty bourgeois she is to varying degrees a victim, though never without fight.

Kate Box in reflection and Thomas Henning, The Business Kate Box in reflection and Thomas Henning, The Business
photo Heidrun Löhr
The Business' 1980s family is immigrant in origin (no coffee, just a steady flow of tea), wealthy, the adult Australian-raised offspring and their spouses child-like and spoilt. The runaway daughter Anna (Kate Box) returns home, apparently more principled than the rest but, like her mother, Van (Sarah Pierse) embittered by her father's mistreatment and ready to conspire with Van to seize the inheritance from the ne'er-do-well siblings who would promptly sell-off the family business. As with Belvoir's Wild Duck (RT102), the social and political context inherent in the original play has no substantial contemporary equivalent in The Business, which seems a pity given the rich complexity and contradictions of 1980s Australian politics. Although this is frustrating it certainly amplifies the sheer vacuity of an emerging materialist life-style culture—save for its business (unlike Vassa's, only vaguely indicated) this family lives in a closed circuit of vituperation, envy and a refusal to forgive.

The plays by Gorky and Gavin share the same spirited assault on the bourgeoisie—but what at first seems grimly frantic and comic slips into dispirited horror. Gorky's Vassa demands that her husband suicide (he dies without resort to that but there is no grieving); Gavin's Ronald (Van's crippled second son; Thomas Henning) kills his wife's lover Gary (Russell Kiefel) and the family dutifully manages the cover-up. Not least because the principal mother-daughter relationship is more nuanced and the two women win out, The Business comes off as more complex than Gorky's Vassa Zheleznova (incidentally The Business appears to borrow some of its plot from the even grimmer Egor Bulychev where a wealthy father is dying, initiating a struggle for his property).

The Business might represent a victory for women but not necessarily for integrity or compassion, as if to say the legacy of the 80s is a greedy, self-serving, culture, whose children live in luxury and surly disaffection, emasculated by their parents who completely control the business. In this world Van must live on, the legacy doubtless intended for a daughter who will become like her mother, or already has.

If The Business is not strong on 80s politics and culture, the specificities of time and place are largely left to design (Victoria Lamb)—an aptly tackily furnished, expensive modernist home with Californian bungalow open stone walls, a lounge room replete with board games for children who will never grow up, and a sunny porch that becomes a site for unexpected violence. Costumes (Stephen Curtis) and hairstyling are comically acute, viciously accentuating character traits and some of the fashion follies of the period. Van's power-dressed shoulders and daughter Anna's great height pushed up by heels and hairstyle immediately suggest competing forces. The casual wear and pronounced body shapes of the other brattish siblings, Simon (John Leary) and Natalie (Samantha Young), amplify their laziness while the arch-backed, lank-haired, bare-chested wild-child Ronald (Henning) lurches about like a purposeless Iggy Popp. A persistent soundtrack of 80s pop ranging from the execrable to the arty further compounds the period sense. The family lives inside this bubble. The business is not loved—it's simply what it means in terms of survival or sustained leisure.

The one aspect of the family business that is focused on is a legal suit against it for the death of a worker who refused to wear a protective mask ("What is OH&S anyway?"). Van simply doesn't want the company to accept responsibility—the victim was, after all, a chronic smoker. This is the world of The Business—a selfish society that doesn't care enough for itself let alone others. Simon puts it in context, his: "I started buying art works from the coons across the river. I give then 10 bucks for a dot painting then I can sell it for two hundred. Hello. People buy that shit. And the guys I buy from are not gonna sue me for negligence or cry to Four Corners because the ventilators in the workshop stop running."

Sarah Peirse, The Business Sarah Peirse, The Business
photo Heidrun Löhr
Inevitably, a limited range of concerns and character traits generates grotesques, utterly without empathy for the dying father (who clearly showed none to them) and locked in a bitter fight for an inheritance that Van has worked so hard for but that others simply feel they deserve. Emotions run to extremes but in Van we can see the fluctuating degrees of frustration, anger, near defeat and the need for reconciliation with Anna, even if it entails compromise. Van shows some compassion for the adulterous daughter-in-law Jennifer (Jody Kennedy)—even, as in Gorky's original, working with her in the garden. The rest is misunderstanding, confusion, blindness and occasional insights that can't be explored—Jennifer: "We're all unhappy; none of us know how to love anything." The best she can sadly come up with is: "I'm a human mix tape." Van herself can barely live up to what she expects of her children: "These young people. 'Duty,' 'consideration'—foreign concepts. I keep hoping one day they'll grow up." Her relationship with her husband is just as muddy: "So what? Maybe he was violent and drunk and yes he cheated on me, but it's men like this who made this country what it is."

What makes The Business potent is its emotional cruelty presented in the guise of comedy, sometimes bordering on farce, rich in gags (the business over a dead parrot, the nouveau riche 'luxury' of croissants stuffed with Fruit Loops), in explosive tensions and, not least, suspense (who will get the inheritance?)—and then shock. Director Cristabel Sved and her cast are endlessly inventive, keeping these monsters believable. If you were hoping for empathy and compassion and felt short changed then The Business was not for you—like Gorky's original, this is tough social satire, even if Gavin is a tad more forgiving. And sometimes tougher: a communal sing-along in the Gorky is replaced with the dissolute Simon and Natalie's faithful rendering of a 'Tab cola' jingle, followed by Simon's "Want a root?" It's that kind of play, that kind of world. In the current political climate we're hardly in a position to deny it.

Performances in The Business were uniformly excellent, underpinned by a strong sense of ensemble. Sarah Pierse's Van rarely allows her bitterness to defeat her purpose or her anger to overrule the requisite moments of compassion or opportunity. Pierse plays out Van's considerable contradictions without doubt. Kate Box as the returning prodigal with a purpose is all elegance and bottled restraint almost ready to act but when she does so it is with reason as well as anger. Jody Kennedy as Jennifer is slatternly but engagingly sensitive; Grant Dodwell as the company manager is gentle and fair—if an ignored moral compass; Russell Kiefel is strong as Gary the apparently easy-going but embittered brother of Van's dying husband; John Leary and Samantha Young are an horrendous couple, the ultimate uncaring brats, bravely played with physical and vocal verve; and Thomas Henning is the crippled Ronald who believes himself unloved—and he is, the best his mother can do to cover the murder of Gary is to have the boy committed to a psychiatric clinic. Henning's Ronald is physically confined to his staggering gait but, when not pathetically self-aware, always on the edge of exceeding his emotional borders. In working from Gorky's Vassa Zheleznova, Jonathan Gavin has created a play that is his own, one finely realised by his collaborators and, sadly, a play for and of our times.

Belvoir: The Business, writer Jonathan Gavin, based on Maxim Gorky's Vassa Zheleznova, director Cristabel Sved, performers Kate Box, Grant Dodwell, Thomas Henning, Jody Kennedy, Russell Kiefel, John Leary, Sarah Pierse, Samantha Young, set design Victoria Lamb, costumes Stephen Curtis, lighting Verity Hampson, composer/sound Max Lyandvert; Belvoir St Theatre, Sydney, April 27-May 29;

RealTime issue #103 June-July 2011 pg. web

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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