Vere (Faith) theatre review (Opera House, Sydney)

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John Doyle, needless to say, is one of Australia’s funniest men. But he has a serious side, most often shown in his theatre and television scripts. Vere (Faith) may be a comedy, but it’s a black one, with profound truths hiding under every joke. In his inimitable, curious way, Doyle’s new play ranges from archaeology to astronomy; physics to psychology, politics, and beyond. He even postulates along similar lines to Einstein, who famously said “imagination is more important than knowledge”. This, through the central character, Vere, who, humbled by dementia, finally declares, “imagination is our greatest strength”. Even Vere’s name makes historical reference, to Herbert Vere Evatt, and the less well-known Vere Gordon Childe, an Australian archaeologist expert in, somewhat ironically, European prehistory.
These and other references insinuate themselves into all corners of the play. The sight of Vere, a university physics professor making his valedictory address to a group of graduates while caressing a neolithic axehead and describing the inventive genius that gave rise to it, imbues the play with a timeless musica universalis. But the text within the play is sometimes so dense as to suggest JD is showing off his penchants for science and philosophy. If the work has a fault, this is probably it. Well, actually it has two, but I’ll get to that. And I don’t want to dwell on faults, because this play, while a little messy, has a good many strengths.
It’s surprising that so little of dramatic merit has been written about dementia; a set of conditions that touches almost all of us in some way at some point. With an ageing population, it is pandemic in proportion. Doyle knowledgeably and compassionately addresses the topic and also manages to put the boot into the parlous state of both state and church. Doyle offers science and reason as a better way to meditate on the wonders of the wider world than religion.
Vere’s ambition to get to Switzerland (home of the Hadron Collider, which this year appeared to confirm the existence of the Higgs boson, or God, particle) is a beautiful, if nebulous metaphor. Switzerland is famously ‘neutral’; straddling both good and evil; a kind of haven, or even heaven. Sarah Goodes’ directorial touch is so light as to be invisibly effective. Her decision to have the cast double in roles emphasises Vere’s condition  as he mistakes people in the his older years for  those who populated his younger days.
But the second half of the play feels somewhat unsatisfying. It’s as if Doyle had a couple of key points in mind, arrived at via, among other things, a bitingly accurate, derisive critique of the Abbott government’s pig ignorance, but needed some kind of Packed To The Rafters family farce to get there.
While the situation comedy has plenty of laughs and is deftly constructed it’s a little cartoonish and throwaway. But while a David Williamson might take on a patronising, pedagogic mantle on the issue of dementia (he did it with euthanasia), Doyle narrowly sidesteps this trap-door through exhalations of humour.
Goodes has assembled a distinguished cast. Paul Blackwell is Vere and while his projection left something to be desired, his portrayal of an eccentric, old-school academic, still in love with his deceased wife and vocation, is almost perfect. His character’s equanimity on learning he has rapid-onset dementia is courageous, kind, and generous rather than angry or bitter.
Matilda Bailey doubles as young astrophysicist and PhD candidate, Gina, and Gianna where she shines peddling a vacuous, default Christianity, and lets Doyle take his own neolithic axehead to blind, unthinking faith. Matthew Gregan crosses between his two roles with panache while Ksenja Logos, Rebecca Massey, Yalin Ozucelik and Geoff Morrell inhabit other roles.
In the end, it’s hard not to have affection for this play and its writer. Doyle has admiration for the nobility of human endeavour, as well as profound empathy for our frailty. Such compassion begets forgiveness of any foibles. Doyle, even at his most searingly satirical, never manages to disguise his affection and admiration for our species. Consequently, Vere is a moving, funny, and poetic play, giving us his vision of, and for, humanity. It’s his version of faith, and God. He gives us faith and hope even in the face of insignificance and death.
A vanishing speck in those inane dominions,
Single and frail, uncertain of her place;
Alone in the bright host of her companions,
Lost, in the blue unfriendliness of space.
That’s what we thought. Read what the other critics say.
[box] Vere (Faith) plays at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, until December 7. Tickets via Sydney Theatre Company. [/box]

One response to “Vere (Faith) theatre review (Opera House, Sydney)

  1. I moderately liked the play, particularly its nuanced treatment of Alzheimers, and its many laughs, but I too found the second half somewhat unsatisfying.
    For me the problem is in the conflict between science and religion. The religious family are made out to be such caricatured buffoons, and mercenary to boot, that it greatly weakens the powerful arguments put forward by the deteriorating Vere. There was a chance for an entertaining duel of real arguments here, but it was squibbed. Most religious people in the real world are not particularly stupid. Shooting fish in a barrel is not great sport.

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