Adelaide University Theatre Guild, 5 May 2018 –
Memo to playwrights: Beware Godwin’s Law! Which is not a law as such, but an exercise in mimesis. The ‘Law’ has it that whoever invokes Hitler or the Nazis in an argument thereby terminates that process, usually in defeat.
In Australian playwight Stephen Sewell’s work (we’ll call it “Myth / Nazi” for short, à la Marat / Sade) an academic at New York University (oops, that is, a NYC Campus), Talbot Finch (Nick Fagan) writes a piece comparing post-911 America to Nazi Germany. Of course! (Snap fingers significantly). The myth of American righteousness knocks on the gate at Auschwitz!
And as would occur, were he living in ’30s Berlin and comparing post-1933 Germany to the USSR in, say, 1924, there is a rather brutal riposte from the shadows of the Deep State, here presented metaphorically as “The Man” (Steve Marvanek). (So Finch the seer either wrote his expose for show or else he failed to see what was coming.) Either way, the premise lacks credibility, which is why we prefer to see “The Man” as simply a trope, reflecting the intellectual bankruptcy of Finch’s own self-hatred..
Assuming we are correct, this seems to us a masterstroke – the fact that The Man is never caught on CCTV, no-one else sees him, everyone doubts Talbot’s sanity and thinks his wounds are pitifully self-inflicted. Moreover, The Man eventually transmogrifies to a sinister priest (while the US flag, with its 51 stars, the supernumerary star doubtless representing the 51st State, Deep State, dissolves into the Eagle of the Third Reich). In other words, our hero is having a regression to his altar-boy, apple-pie, call-Dad ‘Sir’ pre-pubescent state of grace.
We liked these directorial flourishes because to us, Myth / Nazi is really a black comedy about how psychosis visits an onanistic, ignoble, lapsed-Catholic, soft-left liberal bourgeois, chardonnay-socialist from Sydney U, when he discovers that not only has the long march through the institutions amounted to nothing more from ‘boring from within’, not only does his wife Eve (Jessica Carroll) have greater success in the semi-real world, but also he is reduced to teaching gushing simp students of politics naught but dead languages…the dead languages of Marx, Adorno, Marcuse, Foucault, Gramsci, Chomsky and Jackie Collins. When Sewell says his play ‘wrote itself,’ he didn’t know that actual truth was infiltrating his entrenched brain.
Finch is condemned (our thesis – self-condemned) but he’ll be at large for a while, to complete the demonizing process and ready him for the final coup de grâce, like Rubashov in Darkness at Noon and Winston in 1984.
High and low comedy abounds. His academic pals and their faculty wives – Jack (Tim Edhouse) humorously nasty like a pallid Graham Crowden, Amy (a terrific Kyla Booth, straight from an Edward Albee psychodrama), Stan (Jarrod Chave) and Jill (Emma Kerr) come across as Lucy, Desi, Fred and Ethel (only on acid, with acid added, and they’re ‘swingers’ as well). Marguerite (budding actress Yasmin Martin), a student who actually thinks the phrase ‘social justice’ means something, bless her, is played well as an acolyte let-down by events.
Talbot’s lecturer mate from Australia, Max (James Black) is like Ed Norton to Talbot’s Ralph Kramden, with a touch of Sandy Freckle, and their exchanges, while not of the intellectual quality you’d expect from bog-standard chalkies, are exhilarating, especially when Max confirms to Talbot that he’s writing “something for the CV…sort of postmodern…you know, does the state exist?” and “Australia’s fucked.” TVC laughed out loud when Talbot, in a paranoid fug, shrieked ‘they’re trying to get left-wingers out of the universities.”
We also chuckled (along with some lads we drank with at intermission) at the suggestion that Liberal-Arts Don, Talbot Finch, is not familiar with Kafka’s The Trial. Seriously? We’d rusticate Talbot for this: he’s just too dumb to teach at a decent university, even a liberal-arts course.
The play is long, not overlong, but it could benefit from some surgery (we appreciate that this is easier said than done, or licensed), including a winnowing of the excessively declamatory style, redolent of Brecht or the worst of Chinese Communist Theatre, but it is well staged and lit. There is some repetition and superfluity: Eve’s cleansing moments of clarity, including sessions with her therapist (Esther Michelsen), could really be cut from a 150 minute show (no disrespect to Ms Michelsen), and some of the other fat could be flitched off. We don’t know if Eve’s death, akin to Michael Corleone’s first wife’s fate, entirely adds or convinces either.
The cast are all solid and even though the playing tended to be overheated, the play itself is so overheated (and overwritten) that it is in danger of melting. We particularly liked Fagan as Talbot, Carroll as Eve (but not her wardrobe, all lurid culottes and blousy top), and Booth as Amy.
The scene changes are pretty snappy and the sets appropriately stark – perhaps some tightening all round can be considered – but overall, we were highly satisfied with the production. The Little Theatre is particularly suited to intimate staging (with multiple platforms, including the use of the arena – we were moved by Eve roaming the audience, showing the photo of her missing man).
The second act is galvanising, especially the effective and harrowing torture scenes. The juxtaposition of these scenes with the leisured and treasured snorting champagne and viewing the art at the Guggenheim was not overdone, and arguably could have been emphasised (although note: there is no decent art at the Guggenheim – set these scenes at the Met, the Whitney or the Frick).
Myth / Nazi is a time capsule. Written as an anti-George W. Bush diatribe, it doesn’t pack the same wallop in 2018 because of the abundant contemporary evidence that you can compare Mr Trump to Himmler all you like without rendition. If you start casting around for better sources of libertarian angst (such as Bashar al-Assad, Xi Jinping, Kim Jong-un, the King of Thailand or Aung San Suu Kyi), it hits you, dogmatically-speaking, like a wet lettuce. But Myth / Nazi is still a time capsule worth swallowing, because whether one views it as a chilling example of the abuse of power and overreach of the State in a state of fear, or as the hilarious unravelling of a lumpen leftie, this play is a fun, in-your-face way to start a conversation at a late supper afterwards – although the conversation may end-up posing as a fight.
[Afterword: Police Chief of NYC: “We’ll never forget 911.” Hope so – it’s your emergency phone number!]