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COMFY BLOODY COUNTRY: BELVOIR’S THE GREAT FIRE

April 8, 2016

Appropriating Chekhov’s own description of his play The Seagull, Belvoir’s latest offering – Kit Brookman’s The Great Fire – is billed as “a comedy; a family, ten actors, a landscape (view of the Adelaide Hills), a great deal of conversation about politics and life, Christmas, large hopes, five tons of love.” A self-professed “big new play about us – middle Australia in 2016,” Brookman’s play has much to commend in it (big cast, sprawl, decent running time), but although the Chekhovian associations seem apt in many cases, it ultimately proves to be self-defeating.

Set in a house in the Adelaide Hills, The Great Fire is the story of three generations of a family and the dream they tried to build for themselves, only to watch it change and drift away from them as their children grew up, moved away, while the world moved on. Now, this Christmas, the whole family returns (with a new generation on the way), but they’re at a crossroads – can the dream still be achieved? You might be familiar with the generational debate kicking around at the moment – something along the lines of, ‘will Generation X or Generation Y ever be able to achieve the dream of owning property/a house &c like their parents did before them?’ It’s an interesting debate, with no real end or sense of ground being gained or lost, but it’s an important one to be having, and one that very much informs Brookman’s play. But rather than suffusing the play’s action in a Chekhovian way, where every dramatic action happens off-stage and the reactions and repercussions are seen on-stage, or in a way akin to David Hare’s work, where the politics or Big Ideas and the human story sit side by side informing each other, Brookman’s play seems to constantly foreground the generational gap in an attempt to make it relevant, but it only serves to draw attention from the characters’ lives, their hang-ups, passions, private dramas and tender moments.

Continuing the Chekhovian influence (it is in many respects apt, especially considering Eamon Flack’s presence at the helm of both), a lot of The Great Fire feels like Ivanov 2.0, only without the dramaturgical grit or rigour. There are too many long monologues, especially in the opening moments of the play, which become rants; only one of these, late in Act Four, is earned and/or is dramaturgically necessary. The play, as it currently stands, is also too long – perhaps half an hour or so could be cut from Brookman’s script without it losing its structure or shape, while the remainder is reworked and refashioned into a tighter and more elegant whole, more dramatic, made more of.

Curiously, and especially so for a new play – and one that is three hours long at that – there is no real central dramatic question, no singular issue or argument that is being worked out by one or more characters, let alone the playwright – what is the play trying to say, what is it trying to answer? Events happen, but to what cumulative extent? Where are the stakes, what is at stake? We know there is a fire somewhere, but how do the characters react to it, what effect does it have on their lives? As the play currently stands, I do not know how to answer this, even though one all-too-brief mention is made of checking the pumps and hoses just in case the wind changes. It is true that in Chekhov’s writing, the dramatic action happens off-stage and the reactions are shown on-stage, but here not much action happens on-stage and barely any more happens off-stage; there are reactions and brief repercussions, certainly, but for what gain or risk, and to what extent?

Understandably, Chekhov is a high hurdle to clear, but a lot can be conveyed through subtext or a character’s interactions with another; an issue or theme need not be explicitly stated with a speech akin to a flashing neon sign to be relevant or indeed foregrounded in the play’s construction. And for a play that is titled The Great Fire, there is a curious lack of dramatic action concerning said fire; even though the fire in Act Three of Chekhov’s Three Sisters is blazing (or rather, has blazed) off-stage, the characters still enter and depart with urgency, seeking blankets, water, man-power, resources to fight it. In Brookman’s play, the fire is constantly mentioned as being in the surrounding area in the Adelaide Hills, threatening adjoining properties and towns several kilometres away, but not once does a character actively do anything about the fire – either in prevention or defence of it – nor does there seem to be any real concern once the fire passes and/or the wind direction changes too late in the play. The fire itself could perhaps be manifested in the long outburst which precedes its appearance in the play, but this too is not properly or adequately dealt with in the world of the play.

Programmed as “a kind of companion to The Blind Giant is Dancing,” The Great Fire is almost the opposite of Sewell’s play in terms of its vehemence and vitriol. But in other ways, the generational struggle, the idea of living in the aftermath of a dream which has crumbled is all too present in Brookman’s play. But whereas Sewell’s characters coupled with the politics and aggressive drive of the play are unswerving and furious, Brookman’s are a little too indecisive, a little too comfortable, a little to white-and-middle class. Too much of Brookman’s writing feels, well, writerly, as if it is Brookman himself speaking and not one of his characters; that is to say, a lot of his arguments doesn’t feel intrinsically part of the world he has created. Other parts feel a little too gratuitous, a little too autobiographical, in that the mother, father, and brother are all in the theatre business as a writer, director, and director respectively; is this story supposed to be autobiographical, or is it about A Family, any family – is this distinction even important? Can more be done with these similarities; can the connections to real life be used in such a way as to make the story more dramatic, more ‘real’?

Michael Hankin’s set recalls the Australian bush, the colour of eucalypts and the hazy summer hills; the interior of the house has a kitchen, tables, chairs, lounges, armchairs – all markers of domestic bliss, careworn by time and years of use. Damien Cooper’s lighting compliments the play’s setting with that distinctly-Australian golden light, long oranges and pinks for the summer sunsets, a cool blue-green for night, and creates blistering heat and gentle warmth which nudges the story along on its journey.

Flack’s cast of ten, while strong, don’t seem to have terribly much to do apart from sit around, drink beer, discuss their lives and the year just passed, and look forward to the next one. Standouts among the ten-strong cast are Sarah Armanious’ Hannah, whose care and optimism, gentle belief in everyone’s inherent good-ness is humbling, and whose presence is much needed in the seemingly male-dominated household. The other standout is her husband Alex, played by Yalin Ozucelik, whose desire to have a whole-family discussion, and to get sense from his parents about the fate of the property, of the house, of the dream they’re all dealing with, is moving and speaks to a desperation among many in Generation X and Generation Y to have a proper conversation about entitlement, opportunities, and trying to get ahead (if only it was that easy). Peter Carroll and Lynette Curran’s portrayal of the grandparents are moving, although their presence doesn’t really have any bearing on the family’s behaviour or decisions. Eden Falk’s Michael shows just what is wrong with indulgent ego-centric individuals, and how oblivious they are to the world around them. Sandy Gore’s neighbourly Alison is a bit of a sticky-beak, but is well-meaning. Shelly Lauman’s Lily shares her brother Alex’s desire to have a conversation, but also has Michael, her husband, to deal with and keep in check. Geoff Morrell’s Patrick, the father and patriarch of the family is a little absent-minded, but is well-meaning, if a touch out of touch with the realities of life for his children’s generation. His wife Judith, played by Genevieve Picot, is similarly well-meaning, but also laments the opportunities to write and make a difference in the world. The character who gets shortest shift in Brookman’s play though is Tom, played by Marcus McKenzie, who unexpectedly returns home following a disastrous year abroad and the break-up with his long-term boyfriend. It is Tom who we know next to nothing about, who is almost the black sheep of the family, the one who is trying to do his own thing away from the name and the glare of the family. And it is Tom whose story I am beginning to think the whole play actually revolves around. Never mind the generational gap, the talk of good years, bad years and happy new years, or the almost-Chekhovian predilection for seeming inactivity; it is Tom who is truly stuck at a crossroads, Tom whose backstory we know nothing of, Tom whose awkwardness and actions hint at something we are never told, Tom whose presence delights and confuses his family; Tom who is the elephant in the room, Chekhov’s veritable gun that sits on the mantelpiece waiting to go off, but of course he never does, not really.

There are many other dramaturgical elephants which go unchecked and unanswered throughout the play – why does Tom only tell his grandfather (who has dementia) and no one else about his annus horribilis? What about Hannah’s baby, how does she feel about it, how does the family react to its imminent arrival, about how their lives are all about to change? What concern is there for the grandfather being left alone or in the background for a lot of his stage-time? (Wouldn’t someone think to clean him up before they went any further?) Perhaps greatest of all, as I have mentioned earlier, is the fire – why do none of the family feel in any way alarmed by its very real presence around their house, why does no one show the slightest concern for the house, their neighbours, or anyone apart from themselves having a good year next year? Brookman’s final ending, when it comes, does not feel organic to the play; it feels as if it was left over from another project or an earlier draft, and was tacked on a the end as a way to solidify the theme of caring for each other, for believing in the little things, and for having faith.

Eamon Flack’s direction, for the most part, is gentle and clear, and there are some lovely ensemble moments, some beautiful stage pictures which are created through movement or stillness. As Flack said when I interviewed him last year, “I just love seeing a line of people being alive in some way on a stage; I think it’s the most glorious thing.” There is a gloriousness here too, in its own way, in the family pulling itself together to end the year well and start the new one afresh, but there is also a sadness and a melancholy at play too, in a Chekhovian sense, the knife-edge of humanity – a tragedy and a comedy all at once in the same moment. There’s something reminiscent of Cloudsteet in the play too, “the whole restless mob of [them],” a house which is almost a character in its own right, and how it gets under your skin and well and truly refuses to leave. Flack works to bring out the familiar in the family’s daily habits and rituals, in their interactions, but it sometimes seems a little too ordinary, a little too banal or mundane, to be extraordinary or noteworthy. (And part of me cannot help but wonder if Flack has stretched himself eversoslightly too thin, with artistic director duties and directing three productions almost back-to-back before July is over; if this play’s journey to the stage has been slightly compromised by too many other commitments and not enough focus and attention in a very pertinent dramaturgical sense.)

This might all seem too harsh, especially with regards to it being a brand new work, but that’s only because I want this play to be the best it can be. There is a heart in Brookman’s writing, a big fat beating heart, and it’s in the right place too; it’s just not quite beating to the right rhythm yet. It’s curious for a new play with this pedigree to feel dramaturgically undercooked upon opening, yet I admire the size of its cast (rare for a play in Australia, let alone a new play) and the size of its story. I like The Great Fire, I honestly do, and I think the story is worth telling; I also think the story is already there, it’s just not quite in the best shape it could be – I just want to see it stronger, better, tighter, more aching, more tender, more feeling, more more more… beautiful.