What is appropriate and inappropriate behaviour in a relationship between two adults, when one is clearly more powerful and significantly older than the other?That is the question raised and dissected in a crackling new MTC drama, Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes.
It is 2014. Jon Macklem (Dan Spielman) is an acclaimed author with tenure at a prestigious university. His lectures on creative writing are well attended and engaging. He is in the throes of writing his next book, this one about lumberjacks at the turn of the century. He is in quite an agitated state.
In passing, Jon notices a girl wearing a red coat and next thing she is unmissable in one of his classes. Soon thereafter, while Jon is mowing his lawn, he spots her again. It turns out that the girl, Annie (Izabella Yena), lives very close by. Jon is quite a ladies’ man and six months ago separated from his third wife. She now lives in their investment property.
Next thing you know, Jon is helping out Annie, 19, with some first aid after she skinned an elbow and a leg. The first year student has read everything he has published and admires his writing, as so many others do. It becomes clear she is not averse to flirting with him and he is clearly drawn to her.
Even though he could be dismissed for doing so, he begins a hot and heavy affair. Jon also becomes Annie’s mentor after being pleasantly surprised at the calibre of her writing. And then circumstances change.
Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes subsequently works its way through two other timeframes involving the pair. In the wake of the #MeToo movement and the unseemly behaviour exposed in Canberra last month, award-winning Canadian playwright, TV writer and librettist Hannah Moscovitch has clearly crafted a work very much of our times.
The writing is superb, highlighting the complexities of judgment and morality when it comes to such circumstances. It is a piece that calls out for discussion after seeing it.
Putting aside university rules, did Jon overstep the mark? Should he have resisted temptation because, clearly, there was a power imbalance? Did Annie’s flirtatiousness and subsequent consent give him reason enough to proceed? Would she look back and regret her decision? Should Jon have taken that into account? Should he have looked ahead? Who was in the right and who was in the wrong, if, indeed, there was wrong?
Spielman and Yena are utterly convincing in their roles. Spielman, who does much of the heavy lifting, is so natural. Yena is totally engaging. The pair takes us down a rabbit hole and hold us tightly in the burrow throughout.
Petra Kalive’s smart direction extracts the most from both performers. Moscovitch ensures there is nothing predictable about the trajectory of the narrative arc … and that makes the material all the more compelling.
I was a tad disappointed in the deliberately messy set. Although I saw it as representing Jon’s scattered mindset, I felt it was a little disjointed … too unstructured and spread out, and not as creative as MTC’s usual high standard. Mind you, that was my only gripe … and a minor one at that.
Overall, Sexual Conduct of the Middle Classes is an outstanding piece of social commentary that deserves high praise and cries out to be seen. It is playing at Southbank Theatre, The Sumner until 1st April, 2021. I saw the first preview performance.
Other reviews you might enjoy:
- Love (fortyfivedownstairs) – theatre review
- Working with Children (MTC) – theatre review
- Fury (Red Stitch) – theatre review
Alex First is a Melbourne based journalist and communications specialist. He contributes to The Blurb on film and theatre.