John is a surly, snappy, unhappy man. Weaving plays him with an air of sadness which you don’t fully understand until the end of the play. It soon becomes apparent that when John snarls at people he’s really snarling at himself. He’s haunted by demons from his musical heyday and the fact that he can never go back to doing what he loves – playing guitar in the band.
The play includes all the usual accoutrements you’d expect in a story about the music business – drugs, infidelity, drying out, rivalry, wives interfering in the band, egotistical grandstanding – it’s all there. To playwright Andrew Upton’s credit, these features do not make the characters stereotypical. Indeed, Upton’s characters are fully formed individuals, most of them fascinating to watch and mostly fascinating to listen to.
The script however suffers from an excess of repetition which is so circular it goes round and round until it eats itself and then throws up. The characters talk a lot, but they don’t make a lot of sense. Perhaps the repetition is about drug-addled minds trying to express themselves and groping for the right phrase. Perhaps it’s intended to reflect the repetitious phrasing you find in songs. Either way, it is wearing on the ear and by the end of 2½ hours, it’s very trying on one’s patience; especially given the way the play wraps up.
Yet the actors have worked with the script in a way that uses these repetitions to their advantage. Indeed, the characterisations across the board are outstanding. Weaving, Prior and Sims are a real joy to watch and their performances and are three excellent reasons for seeing the play. Weaving is brooding and intense as the damaged John. Prior is brilliant as the disintegrating Lynn. Jeremy Sims plays the band’s manager and he’s a real card, complete with a cockney lilt, which proves that everything really is funnier with an English accent. Sims plays him as a foolish, skittish man who’s all front. His attempts to seduce Porter’s Cindy provide just some of the comedy that is so embedded in the play it seems organic.
Oscar winner Philip Seymour Hoffman makes direction look easy. Of course he’s working with experienced professionals who know what they’re doing; but the whole thing flows very naturally.
The set looks like something out of Home Beautiful. A modern white kitchen, and stainless steel bench top, complete with a working fridge and running water. There is also a lounge room featuring artwork, lounge, chair, coffee table, lounging cushion and stereo. On the back wall of the lounge room is an arched doorway with a double glass door, covered by white wooden shutters. It’s an impressive set. Everything functions and you really feel like you’re in someone’s home.
The lighting and sound effects, in particular a helicopter coming in to land rate a special mention – they were so effective.
There’s just one problem and that’s the script. The first act is chock-full of conflict and issues for all the characters, not just John. The second act features only three actors – Weaving as John, Csokas as his brother and Prior as John’s wife. It’s as if the second act flicks a switch and the play stops. The band is the driving force in the first act and its absence is marked in the second act. All the humour disappears to be replaced with nothing but hard core wordy drama which doesn’t seem to go anywhere.
The character arc of the brothers is unclear. The script is confusingly silent about the fact that John and Phil are brothers until the second act, which is a glaring error of omission. The interaction of husband and wife is more concise. But John’s motivation for resolving things the way he does is hazy at best and totally at odds with everything else that’s happened. Sure it shows his warm and fuzzy side, but a character arc needs to be more emotionally logical. Certainly the audience I was part of seemed confused throughout. They failed to clap at interval and they didn’t know the play had finished until the lights came up to reveal the actors lined up to take their bows. The actors were pouring their hearts and the audience just didn’t get it.
The irony of Riflemind is that it’s art imitating life. You’re going to go see it because of who directed it, who stars in it and who wrote it. But whether it’s worth the price of the ticket is another thing. It’s entertaining in a voyeuristic way because of the content and the talent involved. But is it satisfying as a theatrical experience? I would say not.