What happens when a deliberately self styled and successful yuppie couple agree to dog sit for a friend only to have said pooch run away? Michael Gow’s wonderfully insightful and acerbic play, Sweet Phoebe, examines the lives of two people who are under the misapprehension of having it all.
Red Stitch launch with Gow’s quintessentially Australian play this month, and, for director, Mark Wilson, it is a play that guarantees to resonate.
“The first time I read it it really got me in the guts,” says Wilson. “It’s a very funny play, but it is also an extraordinary portrait of a relationship. So recognisable, so rich. It was the things that we do to each other, especially under pressure; I recognised that.”
The work examines the lives of a couple who are forced to grapple with their own anxiety with quite devastating results. As with much of Gow’s work, humour is key as is a keen understanding of human nature.
“Helen and Frazer have it all worked out. Of course they don’t, but they think they do,” says Wilson. “This makes for delicious comedy, as things spiral out of their control, but control – of ourselves, our lives, our partners – is a central theme, which is linked to the massive real life question of how do we live together? How do we organise our lives, micro and macro, in relation with other people? The people who we live with and love but also people we don’t know, or who we’ve never met, but whose lives are interconnected with ours. You know, who made my shoes?”
Gow is a playwright, director as well as having been artistic director at the Queensland Theatre Company for 11 years. His best known work is his 1986 play Away, so one could be forgiven for not immediately recognising Sweet Phoebe. However, it was the play that marked Cate Blanchett’s first stage performance in London in 1995 and is now celebrating its 25th year. So, how did the fact that this is the 25th anniversary of the work influence its inclusion into the 2019 Red Stitch season?
“Celebrating the 25th anniversary was central to its programming, as far as I know,” Wilson explains. “For me, the most important thing about Red Stitch’s recent programming has been its development and presentation of new writing: Dan Giovannoni’s Jurassica and Morgan Rose’s Desert 6:29pm are two of my favourite examples. This is Red Stitch’s real legacy. I felt that celebrating Michael Gow’s text vibed well with this emphasis on new work. In twenty-five years I look forward to seeing an anniversary production of Desert 6:29pm. It is also about returning to a work which is familiar, or which has been “understood,” and interrogating it further. Where does Sweet Phoebe sit in our imaginations? How might it come alive for us in the theatre?”
Wilson states that he knew of Gow’s work more than he knew it. Wilson acknowledges that he was aware of it, and it was only when he started talking about the play with Red Stitch that he realised how little he actually knew the work. “Away was most vivid for me,” he says, “So getting into Sweet Phoebe was like getting to know someone properly for the first time. Gow is simultaneously so precise a literary writer and so emphatically theatrical a writer. He knows his classics, and he has an ear for the here and now. There is such incredible specificity and gaping possibility at the same time. That is a gift for a director, and for actors. The play is a gift for performers. The writer who wrote Sweet Phoebe knew and trusted and loved what actors do.”
Graduate of the VCA, Wilson is a Melbourne based writer, performer and director who is artistically and creatively really interested in people and how they try to make things work. “People dealing with situations, and trying to work out how best to work it out” he says. “That’s how I see it these days, and I think that has clarified over time. This for me is not just psychological or interpersonal, it is necessarily social and political. The best plays are those with the widest lens: an individual and a relationship and an environment and a society and a community and a nation and a world, a universe, on and on. Finding the balance for each of these elements is such a pleasure. For me, they are all there – or explicitly absent – on each project. Stylistically I love tonal variation and dynamic moves through a piece. I love text, and I love actors. And working with designers who each have an aesthetic and an approach. For me it’s about accumulation of elements, thematically and aesthetically.”
Wilson has no preference when it comes to acting or directing – he simply loves doing both. “I love jumping between roles from project to project, ” he states. “Sometimes I’m insane and do them at the same time haha. I have no preference, it just has to be the right match with the right project at the right time. For instance last year I acted in a play with Red Stitch: timing was perfect, a director I’d wanted to work with for ages, a great team, and the play was a postdramatic feminist Quebecois comedy thriller! So I act when things tick all my boxes haha. Sweet Phoebe was such a brilliant piece of writing that I just had to do it. I first started directing at uni. In my course I was constantly being cast in tiny character roles and wanted the responsibility of shaping a whole show. So I directed Antony and Cleopatra in a black box, no costumes, just actors and text. Never looked back.”
According to Wilson, Michael Gow’s play is brilliant. “So beautifully structured, so recognisable, so funny, ” he says, adding ,”Trust the writing!” If you’ve ever had a dog, or looked after a dog, or known someone with a dog, or seen someone clean up after a dog, you’ll get it. And there are a few surprises along the way too.
February 3 – March 3