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Gates of Egypt

Stephen Sewell's new play follows a woman escaping to Egypt after the death of her husband.

Gates of Egypt

By Diana Simmonds

In program notes for his latest play, The Gates of Egypt, Stephen Sewell writes of Australians existing in a "phoney unreality".

The real reality underlying this curious statement which in its thunderous lack of meaning is typical Sewellspeak, was captured on the play's opening night by comments from two members of the audience.

Audient 1: "Even when I don't like them I do like his plays, they can be quite interesting."

Then, elsewhere in the foyer:

Audient 2: "My daughter won't go to the theatre, just to be on the safe side."

If your reaction to these profound observations is either amusement or bemusement, then you're probably boringly normal and among those complacent and ghastly Australians whose discourse consists of "dross and cowardice" and who are so despised by the eternally angry playwright.

Anger and passion have been the underlying characteristics of Sewell's work for more than 20 years. It's what makes him somewhat popular with angry young men (and, to a lesser extent, angry young women) who haven't been around long enough yet to know better. The point of youthful anger is that over time and with maturity it's tempered by reason and compassion so that the burning black and white issues of youth take on the multi-colours and multi-facets of real life.

This is an aspect of human existence that appears never to have bothered Sewell whose work seems to be afflicted by a kind of arrested development. This works to feed the anger and allows a robust and startlingly successful occupation of the moral high ground. In Sewell's phoney unreality, if you're not with him - you're against him. To disagree is to be revealed as a self-satisfied petit bourgeois fellow traveller in the luxury limo of Aussie life.

Be that as it may, this running dog lackey of filthy imperialist-capitalist scum not only wishes to disagree but to say: the emperor is entirely unclothed except for a toga of self-righteousness and as such is among the least attractive sights in modern Australia. Up there with John Howard's abject kow-towing to his mate George; up there with the Janus-faced death's head otherwise known as Philip Ruddock; up there with a river system whose headwaters and existence remain hostage to agribusiness. I could go on, but you get the drift.

The most distressing thing is, it's not as if we are overrun with challenging political theatre. In 21st century Australia where celebrity ballroom dancing is the zenith of popular culture, passionate, intelligent political playwrighting is rare. When it's done well it can move mountains: it is not an exaggeration to say that Nigel Jamieson's Honour Bound was instrumental in beginning the tide-turn of public opinion and awareness in the case of David Hicks, for instance. But when a political play is incoherent, smug, ranting, ill-conceived nonsense, it does more harm than good.

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