In the present fetid political climate, maybe, overheated by the media in its rush to find ‘villains’ and ‘victims’, to entertain our appetites for the moral humiliation of others, with the official exposure and investigation of child abuse in Australian schools and institutions, Melvyn Morrow’s new play, VICE – Private School Scandal, attempts to bring some easeful and apt sense to our being more circumspect, and even patient, for that need to blame. Mr Morrow is a highly respected writer in the world of the theatre (music theatre and cabaret, especially), and also has an extensive background in teaching in independent schools in Australia, France and England, and tells us that what he has written here, in this play: “The plot of VICE isn’t true but truthful.”
Set in the fictional school of St Mark, we are taken into the privy of the running of a private school and some of the personalities that function there. We are invited to look:
…through a dark lens at the maze of motivations around the underworld of staff and students. (Where) Common room, classroom, playground, sports field, co-curriculum and even trustee politics can become nastily entwined with individuals’ passionate interests, professional ambition and the inevitable personality clashes which fester in institutions. …
Every school is a universe of its own, “a complex human network: inspiring, dangerous, contradictory. eccentric, funny, political, toxic … “
What Mr Morrow delivers is a quagmire of complex motivations for the events that erupt at St Mark’s that result into a public scandal concerning the behaviour of students, staff and the managers of the school, around sexual misbehaviour and/or its innuendo. It looks at the little slips that individuals might make in pursuit of ‘power’ of one kind or another – great or small – that leads them into the crossing of personal, social and cultural boundaries of ethical rightness. Of minor and major choices that accumulatively are, when isolated and considered in the forensic light of an investigation, compromising.
Mr Morrow goes on to say in his note in the published text:
From whatever I’ve learnt about life and art, I suspect that penumbra is the playwright’s most productive playground. If VICE causes controversy, that means audiences are experiencing the layered reality of school life from the participants’ viewpoint. Investigative journalists into educational scandals can oversimplify what in special circumstances can be a mess of mixed motives and surprises … . Truth, like quicksilver, can be slithery. Truth can also be a land mine as well as a lighthouse. There are many twisted strands to the hangman’s rope.
Despite the ‘ugliness’ of the visuals of the set design, and the incongruous selection of music for the production, both extremely off-putting, under the Direction of Elaine Hudson, Mr Morrow’s text is clearly laid out, and the conundrums that the characters present, as the action of the plot unravels, cause a need for discussion and debate well after the watching of the play. VICE, is a promising, provocative and stimulating play.
This is despite some problems in the casting. Jess Loudon is best, as Olivia Fox, the new self-conscious ‘corporate broom’ appointed to the running of the school, to bring it into modern times, the brusque and clumsy catalyst to the exposures, who delivers a feisty and cool presence that energises the action of the performance healthily. Benjamin McCann, as Jasper Cunningham, the adult/child, wielding his youthful sexual charisma for leverage/gain, reveals ultimately the causes of his reckless strategies with a knowing delicacy of ‘touch’ to bring some empathy for a ‘damaged’ and vindictive 18 year-old ‘child’. Christopher Hamilton, as the school appointed investigator, Ian Prendergast SC, carries his tasks with clear and energetic aplomb. Jonathan Deves, as Quentin Tapley, the old-boy newly elected C.E.O. of the Board of Trustees, appears to be slightly out of his depth in delivering the complexities of the character, whilst Roger Gimblett does not appear to have any comfortable insights into the world or behaviour of the Sports/English teacher, Neil Marshall, and Margi De Ferranti seems to be extremely unsure as to the ‘tone’ that she needs to invest to have us believe in the Drama Teacher, Rowena Marshall. The weakness in the casting, though significant, does not derail, completely, one’s absorption in the dilemmas of the play.
I had an intriguing night at the King Street Theatre despite production short comings, and VICE presents more than an excursion into a ‘hot-button’ topic. It investigates the foibles of the human when the greed for ‘power’ consumes one. This play does not condone ever, child sexual assault, but it does attempt to present the ‘borders, frontiers and boundaries’ of human behaviour with a fascination for all of its complex ambiguities and carelessness, when arrogance – conscious and unconscious – can motivate, slipstream, actions.
Company: Emu Productions
Venue: King Street Theatre, Newtown
Dates: 21 April – 9 May 2015
For more of Kevin Jackson’s theatre reviews, check out his blog at Kevin Jackson’s Theatre Diary
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television