Two plays by Sven Swenson
Sven Swenson continues to bid fair as one of Australia’s leading playwrights, and his latest two plays, currently showing at the Metro Arts, show the scope of his interests and the depth of his probing intellect.
This doesn’t mean that Heavenly Bodies and Beautiful Souls are flawless, or even perfectly directed and acted, but with their authentic use of language and Swenson’s ability to tap into the Zeitgeist , however fortuitously, makes them as powerful as anything I’ve seen on stage this year.
Heavenly Bodies is set in a whorehouse in Singapore just before the country falls to the Japanese in 1942. Cutty (Damien Cassidy) is your ordinary average Aussie bloke from the bush, devoted to his wife Ruby, and not quite sure what he’s doing in this strange new world. His mates drag him along to the brothel where he, determined not to look like a fool, goes along with the enterprise but secretly decides just to pay the money and just talk to the whore for an hour.
So naïve is he that he doesn’t realise for a full twenty minutes that he’s been pushed into the room of drag queen Laidie (Andrew Corry), who plays him along by pretending to be deaf and dumb. Once she’s sussed him out, that he’s genuine about not wanting to have sex with her, she reveals her truth, that she’s an unhappy transsexual from Adelaide whose one desire in life is to be somebody’s wife and live in cosy domesticity.
They talk for over an hour, during which each reveals his heart to the other, and then the inevitable doesn’t happen, much to our surprise (and, in my case, delight). So it’s a kind of happy ending, this retreat from the horrors of war and attack, and each of them finds some comfort in the brief relationship.
Damien Cassidy as country boy Cutty is superb in this role. He gets the mix of bravado and embarrassment just right, like a teenager trying to come to terms with life which is what, emotionally at least, he still is. He’s helped, of course, by Swenson’s sharply-honed use of idiom “Jeez, you’re tall,” he says as the high-camp Laidie looms over him. “If you fell over you’d be half-way home.” It’s a joy to watch Cassidy fumbling, making a fool of himself, leading with his chin, and never managing to hide his tenderness under the façade of bravado.
I’m not quite sure how to rate Andrew Cory’s performance as the diffident drag queen. His is the beautiful body (we get to see them both in the last five minutes), but until it is unveiled his body language doesn’t ring true, although this is whether he’s really catching the characterisation of an awkward trannie with all her insecurity, or whether he’s just a little self-conscious as an actor I still can’t decide. Let’s just give him the benefit of the doubt, although I think he does need tighter direction, as his mannerisms become very irritating.
The theme of this short play is neither war nor sexuality, but how lonely people cope when they’re out of their comfort zones, and in this sense it’s very impressive.
The second play, Beautiful Souls, is also concerned with loneliness and non-communication, although this time the characters are two brothers and the girlfriend of one, whom we find in their individual cells on Death Row in Singapore. Swenson is at pains to point out that this is not a band-wagon play, as it was written three years ago, and produced just a few weeks before the arrest of Schapelle Corby. But its closeness to reality makes it all the more poignant.
Again, it’s about people needing to connect but not always wanting to, about the necessity of being loved and comforted, but here it’s also about the failure to take responsibility for one’s actions. Leaving the abomination of the death sentence out of the equation, the problem with these three is that none of them is willing to face up to what they have done, even though their guilt is no way in doubt.
Both Beth (Leesa Connelly) and David (Luke Wright) knew exactly what they were doing, but David’s brother Justin is a big dumb ox, brain-damaged, as we learn later, when David pushed him off a balcony when he was five. Beautiful soul is a common euphemism for people like this, and Swenson here has the opportunity to give him the outsider’s objective voice, but it’s a theme he fails to take up, dwelling instead on the internal traumas of all three characters as they face death. I think this weakens the impact of the play, making it very one-sided, because there is no hint that the three care about the damage they’ve done by their drug smuggling, and Swenson lets them get away with it.
Luke Wright is outstanding as Justin, a kind of idiot-savant who is the only one we can care about, and he doesn’t overdo the hand-wringing and ceaseless unrest that’s characteristic of many people with this disability. The others aren’t quite as convincing, mainly because they’re often too shrill, and gabble their lines so that they are sometimes unintelligible although I must say that if I were given some of the flowery prose that Swenson puts in their mouths, I’d want to get through it as fast as possible, too. There’s some over-writing in this play particularly, which adds a sentimental veneer to what is basically a tough inner core.
These quibbles aside, however, both plays are immensely powerful, and the musical score adds even more depth and pathos to situations which, much as we may cavil about some inappropriate phrasing, will live in my memory for a long, long time.
And that’s about as much as you can ask of any play, so I’d put them in the must-see category.
Directed by Sven Swenson
Playing until 25 March: Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday at 7.30pm
Duration : 2 hours 15 minutes, including 20 minute interval