Dinner (STC) – theatre review

In the original published text of Dinner – which differs from what we see in this production – Paige (Caroline Brazier), a famous gourmet hostess, invites a group of middle class intellectuals (not aristocrats, as suggested in the program) to a, supposedly, celebratory dinner. The event is to celebrate the successful publication of her husband’s, Lars (Sean O’Shea), philosophic how-to-live a happy life tome.

Wynne (Rebecca Massey), an obscure painter, arrives without her husband Bob, a politician, who has just run off with one of his “temps”. She does not appear to be upset. Paige is more so, for now she has an uneven table and an excess of food, and her planned scenario of cast activity is thwarted. She must begin to improvise rather earlier than hoped for, it seems. And as we discern throughout the night, Wynne, herself, has a romantic agenda of her own going on and is relatively comfortable with the state of things, without hubby.

Hal (Brandon Burke), a microbiologist, is lately divorced from suicidal Mags – a close friend of Paige’s. He’s newly married to Sian (Claire Lovering), a television journalist/presenter – “a news babe”. (To digress, in a time when marriage equality is being debated, heatedly, it is arresting to note that none of the four heterosexual marriages revealed here are positive role models of success, and one has to believe, consequently, that it is the question of equality rather than marriage that ought to be at the centre of Australia’s contemporary debate – if these people represent marriage, who would want to do it?)

Paige has hired a waiter (Bruce Spence), who is silent but has other special gifts. He demands that his services are to be paid expensively in cash, in advance. The Menu consists of “Primordial Soup”, as a starter; “Apocalypse of Lobster” for the main; and a dessert: “Frozen Waste. Paige”‘s planning for this night has been meticulous and spiteful, to say the least. Just after the starter is served, a working class lorry driver, Mike (Aleks Mikic), arrives – further disturbing the well laid plans of the ‘ hostess with the most-est’ – but he is invited to stay.

A dinner party of vicious verbal wit ensues revealing the plan Paige has drawn up to visit revenge on her duplicitous husband in front of her chosen guests. Her own bloody murder/suicide by the silent waiter is to be this dinner party’s coup de grace.

In the original, the waiter reneges on the deal, returns the money and leaves. Paige is distressed and accidentally shoots Mike in the back. In the ensuing panic, she attempts to shoot herself and fails. A plan is made to collude to lie about Mike’s death; only to have the “news babe” inform them she has managed to call the police and they’re on their way. The ‘new moneyed’ pseudo-intellectuals have perpetrated murder and now are left ‘stewing’ in their juices of venom – a “dinner” indeed.

The original version of the play was, probably, written in response to the oligarchical moneying of London in the ’90’s where the rich seemed to live in a universe with no real consequence for actions. “What money can buy, we can have!” Produced just two months after the attack on the World Trade Center in New York, this play seems to be completely irrelevant as a contribution to the conversation through art, of and for our anxiety ridden-state in our contemporary world.

The director, Imara Savage and her designer, Elizabeth Gadsby, have placed the play in a sealed box with a vast glass wall for us to see through. This distances us from the ‘performative’ script of the playwright, as well as providing a stylised set of rooms. These include an unnecessary kitchen for other “illuminating” (?) directorial activity, but further isolates the performers from the audience. The use of obviously amplified sound to further disembody the performers creates comic target caricatures. An additional series of flourishes further ‘theatricalise’ the production. They include: drowning out the actors with low passing jet sounds; eerie music (Max Lyandvert) that is a cue to paralyse the performers who then slowly turn to stare at us through the glass sheets; the appearance of stage-management with stage equipment or cleaning tools, without any other comment throughout the action of the production, and the scrawling on the glass walls: “Fuck Shit Up”.

None of these gestures can make this play work as a vital and justifiable part of contemporary conversation. Not even the new last scene, where Mike is witness to his hostess’s murder/suicide instead of being the victim, makes a clear mark. Just what is the relevance of this new statement? What was the point? Anyway, the production had gone far beyond my caring by the time we reached its end after a wearying hour and forty minutes of personal abuse comedy, with no interval to relieve the tediousness.

The very best thing about this performance, and the only reason to attend this production, is the quality of the actors who manage to survive the importunate choices of the directorial team. Caroline Brazier is brittle but  indefatigable in the central ‘poisonous’ role of Paige. Rebecca Massey is a tour de force of character comic. Claire Lovering, Brandon Burke, Bruce Spence, Sean O’Shea and the interesting Aleks Mikic on debut, support each other with an ensemble approach in their attempt to communicate something to us – all through that damnable glass wall.

Dinner on opening night was an experience where intellectual conception burdened the play and players over much. This play was presented in Sydney by a team led by Alice Livingstone many years ago now. I saw a production at the Melbourne Theatre Company with Pamela Rabe, as well, some time ago.

Why the STC thought this was a relevant play to occupy our stages in 2017 is, frankly, beyond me. Kip Williams in his introductory message in the program suggests that Moira Buffini’s debut at the STC, “applies a liberal helping of Luis Bunuel surrealism and Alfred Hitchcocck thriller with a dash of J.B. Priestly class interrogation”. It is what we see but it is more Imara Savage than Moira Buffini, who has Bunuel, Hitchcock and Priestly, in mind, I think. Ms Buffini has more of some of the grand guignol of the Jacobean Revenge plays in mind, I reckon.

Dinner is not as Mr Williams would wish: a must see “Bon appetit”.

Company: Sydney Theatre Company
Venue: Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House
Dates: 15 September – 28 October 2017

Kevin Jackson
For more of Kevin Jackson’s theatre reviews, check out his blog at Kevin Jackson’s Theatre Diary

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