A couple of years ago now I saw one of the best plays I have ever seen, at Gasworks. It was a production of Frankenstein and ever since that night, I have held high hopes that I might be witness to another pearler. Sadly (with the exception of the joyous launch of the Midsummer festival in 2014), I haven’t been impressed with any subsequent shows at the venue. Last Wednesday night’s production of The Boys was unfortunately another disappointment. I wouldn’t have picked it either, the night had started so well! I was punctual (always a bonus) and I had pulled into a rock star park right out the front. Seeing as Port Melbourne is a labyrinth, not to mention a difficult place to get a spot, my pedestrian stroke of luck meant that by the time I had taken my seat in the little theatrette, I was satisfactorily cheery.
Things went downhill from there.
In the interest of my criticisms not appearing too vicious, I shall start with the production/set design which was (for want of a better way to describe it) not too bad. Both the props and the use of the space, while not thrilling, were appropriate for the demographic represented. With this said, all of the choices (including those made by costume) were on the nose and could have benefited from a more subtle and layered approach. I always like to see something other than the tropes that have come to define the representation of lower socio-economic characters and their environments explored in production, set and costume design. The Boys stuck to the predictable unkempt house, cluttered backyard and presence of trashy magazines, junk mail and abandoned takeaway containers. While this was satisfactory, it offered nothing more for the audience to discover about these characters- other than what was already expected.
The inclusion and use of a door downstage left also detracted from the effectiveness of the set design. The door represented the back (or indeed front) door of the house and by moving through it, the actors changed location. The only problem with this part of the set was that you could see the actors walk through an empty space once ‘inside’. What could have worked better would have been to have the door in the middle of the stage, towards the back, so at least there was the illusion that the actors had moved into a different space.
Ruining the illusion and magic of the theatre was a problem that cropped up throughout The Boys, particularly with respect to performance and concentration. This constantly took me ‘out’ of the show and made me very aware that I was watching actors simply recite lines- never a good thing. At one point I heard two of the performers whisper about moving props during lights down. This was a low point. I was also distracted during the final scenes when I saw considerable movement backstage, readying for curtain call. These moments of inadvertently breaking the fourth wall separated The Boys from really solid productions, professional or otherwise.
Heralded as one of ‘Australia’s greatest plays’ and turned into a feature film by the same name in 1998,The Boys is written by the softly spoken and eloquent playwright, Gordon Graham, having had numerous productions around the country. Graham had written the play largely in response to the brutal rape and murder of Anita Cobby which sent shock waves through Sydney and indeed, the whole of Australia in 1986. What I can commend Nice Production’s on was choosing to donate $2 from every ticket sale to the Domestic Violence Resource Centre Victoria. This entered the play into an advocacy for change zone- always more meaningful. With the current state of violence against women in this country and the topical nature of this issue being explored via artistic purposes around the world, it was great to see an independent theatre house tackling it. Unfortunately, the material was beyond the capabilities of this particular production and as a result of performance and indeed direction, the message became skewed and both my theatre-going-buddy and myself, left the play wondering what the hell the message was. This was a shame when the writing indicated a desire to explore domestic violence from a victim as well as perpetrator’s perspective (no easy task) but also to delve into the complexities of nature vs. nurture and what leads a person (in this case, group of people) to commit such a heinous crime. In the end, the message was lost and perhaps even subverted by a lack of effective directing and performance.
In retrospect I think that Rebecca Fortuna, who played Michelle, possessed the most natural talent of the ensemble. With this said, it was Michael Shanahan who played the ex-con, Brett that was ultimately the most convincing and indeed, consistent performer. With this said, he played pretty much the same note throughout the performance and while he mastered the art of ‘getting angry’ I didn’t witness much else from him, resulting in a performance that was largely one-dimensional. As the lead perpetrator of the crime, this was a mistake because of all of the characters, the audience needed three-dimensionality from Brett.
All of the actors at one time or another struggled with lines; projection; motivation and what to do with their bodies (particularly their hands), this made for a seemingly unpolished performance. It was these little things that frustrated me enormously as an audience member and indicated either a lack of concentration, or a lack of effective rehearsal, but most probably both. It was also one of the most ineffective use of props from an ensemble that I have ever seen on the stage. The actors busied themselves throughout the play with tasks and props but rarely (it seemed) due to logical character motivation. What appeared to be going on was a considerable amount of posturing, shielding what I can only assume was nerves and discomfort with the material.
Overall, The Boys was a disappointment but to their credit, I remained attentive throughout. With the exception of the final few scenes, (that palpably dragged), this does say something for effective management of pace, so I commend Nice Productions and indeed the performers for that.