THE BUSINESS, Upstairs Belvoir, 23 April-29 May 2011. Photos: Heidrun Lohr; main pic – Sarah Peirse and Kate Box; sidebar pic: Thomas Henning.
MAXIM GORKY’s Vassa Zheleznova was a woman of small business, of huge ambition and of 1909 – when the play first reflected back to the petit bourgeoisie some of its least attractive members. Now, at Belvoir’s behest, Jonathan Gavin has reworked the play, set it in the 1980s in an unspecified Australian location and created a work for the times that’s also a readymade black comedy classic.
Gorky’s Vassa – the wife behind the success of the small-town businessman occupying an offstage death bed – is now Gavin’s Van (brilliant, scary, heartbreaking Sarah Peirse). She is the matriarch-cum-ring mistress whose verbal whip cracks choreograph the capering and cantering of her misbegotten brood. She has two seriously unfortunate sons, with even more unfortunate wives, one of whom is a “fat slut” while the other is bonking her father-in-law’s sleazy bouffanted brother. Van also has a prodigal daughter, lately returned for the deathbed niceties of the man who is savouring the last rites of morphine and determined bastardry. This unloving, unforgiving, ungenerous patriarch isn’t about to yield to finer feelings any time soon, just because he’s dying.
And precisely because their father is dying, any flicker of finer feeling that might have existed in his sons has been snuffed out. Instead, the scent of easy money inflames a sense of entitlement, while impatient anticipation turns the spacious family home into a domestic battleground.
When Gorky wrote his play Russia was in social and political turmoil. The peasants were revolting and the bourgeoisie was simply disgusting. Gorky was fond of neither, but he loathed the latter, yet understood them with bitter amusement. His setting is unspecified – Beloborodova or Baykal, who knows – and Gavin’s is equally vague, but it could be Baulkham Hills or Bellevue Hill, although a river is mentioned. But it doesn’t really matter as what fixes these grotesques in an instantly credible reality is that it’s the 1980s.
Set designer Victoria Lamb, costume designer Stephen Curtis and lighting designer Verity Hampson immediately signal to the audience that this is the decade of “greed is good”. There’s a cream leather sofa, vertical blinds, an electric typewriter, Yahtzee on the coffee table and the most hideous stone-effect feature wall and flooring this side of a nightmare. And if you don’t remember the 80s you were either not alive yet or had your eyes squeezed shut in horror; or were coked to the eyeballs, or too busy admiring your white shoes or teasing your big hair while wondering, “when’s Pixie and Chris’s next party?”
Director Cristabel Sved makes an assured debut on Belvoir’s main stage with a play that, in less confident hands, could descend into a mess of misfiring opportunities. In its broad, brash way it’s a delicate mix of drama-melodrama, comedy and farce, personal and politics. And Sved manages to keep her cast on its tightrope and as well balanced as such a mob of misshapen souls could ever be. While Peirse is the dynamically simmering centre, she is surrounded by fine actors who give their all without a blink or any apparent self consciousness.
Thomas Henning is outstanding as Van’s younger son Ronald, who has cerebral palsy and all the physical problems that go with it. There are muscle spasms that distort his spine, leg and hand and a sometime speech impediment; but in the main he is tormented by the frustrated childlike rages that are the result of a lifetime of teasing, cruelty and limitation. He is, of course, not brain-damaged – unless you take into account the effect on him of the rest of his family and his new wife, Jennifer (Jody Kennedy). She is an oddly poignant yet brainless slapper who is pregnant to uncle Gary (Russell Kiefel), the aforementioned sleazy brother and conniving, whiningbusiness partner of the dying man.
To Van’s utter fury, her husband has cut her out of his will even though – or perhaps because – she’s been the business’s powerhouse. Instead her eldest son Simon (John Leary) is the major benefactor, to the malevolent delight of his “fat slut” wife Natalie (Samantha Young). These two are characters who would be quite at home in Fellini’s Satyricon or as Emperor and Mrs Caligula; and they would be right at home in Sylvania Waters. Although a monstrous pair, there is little that isn’t believable about them including Simon’s simple ambition: to own a yacht, have parties, meet stars and do absolutely nothing useful.
Tiptoeing around the edges of this nightmare is the dying man’s lawyer Michael (Grant Dodwell). He’s a decent chap – which makes him an oddity in this company – and the target of Van’s (frankly, entirely reasonable) obsession with getting her husband to sign a new will in her favour. When her already disinherited daughter Anna arrives home, the plot thickens. As Anna Kate Box is everything her brothers are not and she’s her mother’s smouldering counterpart in scheming and smarts. The play is a combustible mixture of humanity, venality, stupidity, nastiness and virtually every other trait and description that might be used to describe the effect on people of money, wills and power. And surprisingly, despite the raw, rough comedy, The Business ends up with real heart and final moments of poignancy. By coincidence there’s another – more whimsical – version of much the same story in cinemas at the moment: Potiche, starring the incomparable Deneuve and Depardieu.
The Business had its opening night audience alternately chortling and gasping, as well as pretty much enthralled throughout. There’s a bit of a hiccup between the first and second acts: a major blackout could, and maybe should, be the end of the first half; that would give the second half a bit more substance and perhaps make the end and last five minutes seem less of a perfunctory downhill run. But that’s a quibble in what is otherwise a crazily and seriously entertaining night of bourgeois bashing. I loved it.