I once heard a notable playwright say during a workshop she was giving that Australian plays don’t often deal with powerful people – the middle classes, yes, and, to a lesser extent, the underprivileged and downtrodden, but rarely what passes for this country’s upper echelons. From the moment the curtain rises on veteran designer Mark Thompson’s lavish penthouse suite set – white leather furniture, glass top tables and stainless steel bench tops, flashes of Trumpian gold everywhere from the baby grand to the power points – we know that the milieu of Vale is one of old money and uncontested privilege.
As the world reckons with the Weinstein scandal and the interminable stories of the harassment and abuse of women by men in positions of power that have followed in its wake, the timing of Nikki Bloom’s play seems propitious. As American author Rebecca Traister recently noted, ‘really powerful white men are losing jobs — that never happens.’ In Vale, Bloom takes this cathartic idea and reconfigures it as classical tragedy, the inevitable downfall of its odious title character – the dissembling hotelier and supposedly self-made man Joe Vale (Mark Saturno) – a grim satisfaction.
It is New Year’s Eve, and as the play opens Joe and his wife Tina (Elena Carapetis) are awaiting the arrival of their daughter Isla (Tilda Cobham-Hervey) and her boyfriend Angus (James Smith). Even before Isla and Angus arrive, it is clear that this is a family in crisis – the alienated and distant Tina, who does not seem to be all there, fusses over a porcelain doll as though it were flesh and blood; despite the trappings of wealth that surround him, Joe stamps and blusters like a man with something still to prove. This is a social class for whom the putting on of a face remains paramount. ‘This is a party, not a fucking funeral’, Joe scolds Tina before their guests have arrived. He threatens to throw the doll off the balcony.
This is a play that, as much as anything else, is about how far the beneficiaries of inherited wealth will go to protect it.
At first, Isla and Angus seem removed from, and almost inoculated by their youth against Tina’s anomie and Joe’s faintly desperate grandstanding (‘you don’t need to do this,’ Isla says to him at one point, ‘the arsehole father act’). Isla is completing a law degree while Angus appears quietly ambitious, determined to make something of himself but neither at the behest nor expense of others – Joe wants to give him a job but he won’t have bar of it. And yet Angus, whose single mother Diana (Emma Jackson) is also set to join the party – much to the surprise, and irritation, of Tina and Joe – is no fish out of water. As he grows in confidence – at one point he breaks an apple in half with his bare hands, explaining that his name means ‘superior strength’ – he begins to resemble a younger Joe.
Similarly, Isla as played by Cobham-Hervey seems initially to be set in the same ingénue mould that served her so well in last year’s Things I Know to Be True but undergoes a stark, and skilfully executed, transformation. It’s a deeply impressive performance, if one that shows up the limitations of Smith’s – a character actor at heart, he lacks the polish and charm to fully carry off Angus’ vulgarisation. Saturno’s arch, reptilian Joe is most effective when the actor resists the temptation to allow the part’s repugnancy to slide into cartoonish mugging.
As the penthouse more and more resembles a gilded cage, there is a sense in which Bloom’s play itself, under the direction of Geordie Brookman, is fighting against a similar urge: to up everything to the point of overkill, to, in a phrase, over-egg the pudding. In the play’s second act, the plot twists that come thick and fast accrue the luridness of melodrama rather than the heft of classical tragedy. There’s rather too much declamatory exposition, and not enough organic reveal of information.
At the same time, threads are left hanging. It’s suggested, for example, that the financial position of Joe and Tina may be more perilous than they choose to let on but we never know for sure. This matters because, by my reading, this is a play that, as much as anything else, is about how far the beneficiaries of inherited wealth will go to protect it. Brookman’s direction, while drawing out fine performances from the cast, tends towards overstatement, for example in its use of Hilary Kleinig’s orchestral score to stress emotionally and narratively significant moments.
Nevertheless, Bloom’s play has much to recommend it. It is linguistically rich and acidly funny. Its most considerable achievement, perhaps, is the way the tragedy is concealed beneath layers of jet-black comedy. It also arrives, as good plays always do, at exactly the right time – when, at long last, it seems the impunity of rich white men is suddenly and thrillingly open to challenge.
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