Reviews, Stage, Theatre

Machu Picchu review (Wharf 1 Theatre, Sydney)

| |

In Sue Smith’s new drama Machu Picchu, married engineers Gabby (Lisa McCune) and Paul (Darren Gilshenan) have their lives instantly and forever changed when they’re involved in a horrific car accident. Gabby walks away unscathed, but Paul is left paralysed.
As Paul adjusts to his new life with limited mobility and is forced to reconsider his priorities, his relationship with Gabby is put to the test. The pair were already feeling the strain of their two decades together, but Paul’s sudden disability means that life won’t be what they expected.
It’s clear they’ll never achieve their long-held dream of travelling to Machu Picchu and exploring that extraordinary feat of engineering. So what kind of future does this couple have?
Smith is at her most confident when writing about the love that draws Paul and Gabby together, and while it doesn’t really fire on stage until the play’s final scene, there are some lovely, tender, and funny moments.
But the supporting characters are underdeveloped, starting with Paul and Gabby’s best friends Marty (Luke Joslin) and Kim (Elena Carapetis), who are given a half-baked IVF subplot. Although I assume Smith intended to write them as well-meaning klutzes, they’re two of the most irritating characters on Sydney stages this year, completely oblivious to the emotional needs of their friends. It beggars belief that Smith’s two likeable, but flawed, protagonists would even be friends with Marty and Kim.
Worse still is the arc of Paul and Gabby’s daughter Lucy (Annabel Matheson) who, in one brazen sentence, explains how she’s uses her promiscuity to define herself against her parents. I’m not even sure why this character has to be on stage; the only purpose she seems to serve is as a mirror to her parents’ messy relationship, and her first scene with her father is inconsistent with their relationship in later scenes.
The play is loaded with cliches — from the mindfulness retreat which proves anything but relaxing, to the middle class anxieties we’ve seen a hundred times on stage, to the birth scene in which a soon-to-be-mother in agony shouts at her partner: “if you ever fucking touch me again, I will kill you!”
And although Smith has said in interviews and her program note that the play was inspired by her experience with non-Hodgkin lymphoma and questions about how we experience and live within our own bodies, it’s unavoidably a play about disability. It’s constantly verging on disability tragedy porn, playing on its largely non-disabled audience’s fear of how their lives would be compromised if they were suddenly disabled. That is until it becomes about courage and crosses the line into inspiration porn.
For a company like STC, which has previously presented superb, nuanced main stage work by Back to Back Theatre, Australia’s leading theatre company of artists with disability, it feels like a step backwards.
In fact, the play is an anomaly for STC, which hasn’t staged a new Australian work in years that wasn’t absolutely ready for the platform. I’ve had a lot of praise for the company’s rigorous dramaturgical standards in the past, but this piece is a surprising misstep.
Thankfully director Geordie Brookman’s fast-moving, textured production elevates the script. Both McCune and Gilshenan are in fine form — McCune finds her character’s guilt, desperation and loneliness, while Gilshenan conjures up plenty of emotion without his usual full physical range.
They’re both excellent actors, but don’t seem particularly well-matched in terms of style or sensibility. And by casting McCune in this role, the audience inevitably sees the story through Gabby’s eyes, and Paul’s perspectives are diminished. McCune is Australia’s Golden Girl and audiences are just used to emotionally investing in her.
Luke Joslin, Elena Carapetis and Annabel Matheson make the best of the roles they’ve been — Joslin gets a confusing but charming comedic turn as Elvis, Carapetis finds the colour in a rather cardboard role, and Annabel Matheson manages to raise the stakes for her character, even though the script fails to do so.
Renato Musolino has an unusual challenge as Lou, a kind of new age psychologist/yoga instructor who helps Paul to find the peace he needs. He does his best with an emotionally inconsistent character.
But really, none of these characters are pulled together in a satisfying way. For a play with such weighty subject matter and potential for human drama, Machu Picchu is not particularly illuminating.
[box]Machu Picchu is at the Wharf 1 Theatre, Sydney until April 9, and then at the Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre, from April 13 to May 1. Featured image by Brett Boardman[/box]

6 responses to “Machu Picchu review (Wharf 1 Theatre, Sydney)

  1. You’re right about the chemistry (absence thereof) and I’d clean forgotten about Back to Back – thanks for the reminder.

  2. Wow, my job can get tough at times but I’m glad I don’t have to earn my cash ripping the reputations of hard working actors and writers to shreds. But then again, it’s much easier to destroy than create isn’t it. I think the playwright must have found cancer a walk in the park compared to reading your vicious reviews – sleep well!

    1. The reviewer is correct in every paragraph! I saw the play and it was absolutely appaling. Coming from Ireland where we pay no more than the equivilant of AUD40 to see a quality play, the AUD95 paid to see this drivel was a huge waste of money. Credit where credit is due and in this case it deserved 1 star. Great actors but poor script.

  3. “It’s constantly verging on disability tragedy porn, playing on its largely non-disabled audience’s fear of how their lives would be compromised if they were suddenly disabled. That is until it becomes about courage and crosses the line into inspiration porn. ”
    You doubtless think that this empty rhetoric sounds clever. What exactly is “disability tragedy porn” or for that matter, “inspiration porn”? If you didn’t like it, fair enough. However if you’re going to criticise a piece because the writing is undercooked, perhaps it is advisable to scan your own final draft for material that makes you sound like an undergraduate cheap shot merchant.

  4. I am familiar with the phrases because I work with people with a disability in special education. My gripe is, that without defining them in terms of the specifics of the play, they are empty rhetoric, ideas reduced to smartarse, point scoring sloganeering.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *