HAL: Hmm… a good time ago.
CP: You know, the last time I saw Hugo Weaving on stage, someone had a heart attack in the audience. Did I ever tell you that?
HAL: No, who had the heart attack?
CP: Just one of the members of the audience.
HAL: Because Hugo’s so hot.
CP: It could have been that, yeah. I might as well ask you —
HAL: Yes I’ve had a crush on Hugo since I first saw him, yes okay.
CP: Did your gay male companion think Hugo was hot?
HAL: I didn’t ask him. I thought I’d keep Hugo to myself.
CP: So what is this play about?
HAL: Well, basically, the lead singer of a rock band gets into drugs, has a breakdown, retires, and years later, after not playing the guitar for ages, his former band members try to revive the band and go on tour, and meanwhile he’s with this lady who’s a former drug addict and she’s anxious about him rejoining the band because… basically because she’s afraid they’ll both go down into this spiral of drugs and whatever else they do.
CP: Paint me a picture. What’s the feel, the mood of the play?
HAL: Oh, well you’ve got Hugo who sort of fills the stage up with his… bitterness, resentfulness, and his insecurity, and his sort of sullen, cold — you know — I hate myself so I’m going to be detached and hate everybody else attitude. So that really is what fills the space… He has enormous stage presence and just commands the stage and owns it, and that was exciting. Hugo has always excelled as the sullen, aloof loner against the world…
CP: Has he? What are you thinking of?
HAL: Well, Dirtwater Dynasty. I mean, one of his very first films, he was that sort of character. So it’s Hugo sort of at his amplified best.
CP: The play is kind of dark and humourless? Is that right?
HAL: Not totally, but… Look, the problem with the script is that it takes itself so seriously there’s no room for humour.
CP: Could it be described as "dark"?
HAL: Trying to be dark. To me there was an edge of pretentiousness to it.
CP: What do you mean? How was it pretentious?
HAL: Subtext and innuendos that appear to lead nowhere, or lead very slowly to the next thing.
CP: Okay. You know, in a way there are advantages to interviewing you weeks after you’ve seen the damn thing — it gives you the perspective of time, lets you think about what you’ve seen, what sticks out the most, what remains.
HAL: It was a really good set.
CP: What’s so good about the set?
HAL: You know, super dooper kitchen, it’s just nicely balanced, and the sound effects of the helicopter were good.
CP: Backhanded compliment, huh? You know, I read a couple of reviews along the way, as one does — most of them kind of negative.
HAL: Oh, that’s interesting. So, what were the negative remarks about it?
CP: I remember reading this good review at Australian Stage Online by this guy named James Waites. He wrote a very good review — negative, but interestingly critical [my memory betrayed me — the review is ultimately positive].
HAL: Okay, what were the critical points?
CP: I seem to remember him saying something about it’s a play the actors had a lot of time with, but it might be harder for an audience to come into. There seemed to be a lot of semi-meaningful moments that weren’t spelled out.
HAL: Oh, I picked up on that as well. There were quite a few different scenarios, for example one involving the death of a boy, but never fully explained, and you just think, That could have been fleshed out a lot more, and it seemed to me it was a lost opportunity to make the play… meaningful in some way. I just felt it… just drifted. The plot itself didn’t seem to me to have a very strong sense of purpose, direction, or a focal point, or something definitive at the end. It didn’t make a statement about anything.
CP: Could you see it as (I haven’t seen it) — could you see it as a slice of life, showing you what it’s like to be these sorts of people in these sorts of circumstances?
HAL: Look, to some extent. I think that’s probably the most generous way that you could look at it.
CP: So, James Waites did praise the acting. I think all the reviews I read did.
HAL: Yeah, it was good acting, but what is the go with the script? Did the other reviews refer to that?
CP: I’ve got another one here. It’s by Jo Litson, Sunday Telegraph, 14 October, a while ago. So what’s it say… Stars aplenty. Standing room only. Feels like a pretty authentic fly on the wall look. Characters beautifully drawn with a truth to the writing — so I suppose that praises the script. Short, unfinished sentences, as they struggle to express themselves, cover fathoms of tense, unspoken subtext. Brilliant performances. However, with little to like about the characters, it’s hard to empathise with them or care what happens. — I suppose it’s not a particularly negative review on the whole.
HAL: That review picks up on the bleakness. And that’s perhaps why it’s difficult to like or enjoy.
CP: Don’t you enjoy bleak pictures?
HAL: Frankly, no. I like to see some small inspiration, or at least one character that grows.
CP: That wasn’t achieved? There was no character arc?
HAL: There was some.
CP: What was so good about the acting? People say powerful acting, powerful performances — what does that mean?
[Then the tape recorder stuffs up.]
CP: So HAL was saying that there really is something wrong with the script, it’s boring, it just doesn’t work, she doesn’t care how good the acting is, if you’ve got a boring script you’re stuffed. She was saying that she thought that the reviews were overgenerous, and she thought Hurlyburly was a much better script.
HAL: Well, it deals with similar issues. I suppose Riflemind is not the acting world, it’s the band world, but it’s still the entertainment industry and it deals with addictions, and this whole sort of scene of sexual promiscuity and so on. Hurlyburly is much meatier, it’s gutsy, the characters are more primal.
CP: The characters weren’t primal here?
HAL: There’s some element of it with Jeremy Sims, but there was grit lacking.
CP: It seems reasonably gritty, from what you’re saying — the death of children…
HAL: No, but it wasn’t, that’s the point, it just wasn’t. It was too cerebral.
CP: You were saying you just didn’t buy the "beautifully drawn" comment. So you don’t think, in the writing, the characters had meat on them or whatever?
HAL: They’re so busy trying to sound intellectual, there’s no grit in it.
CP: You use the word "grit", and I’ve got no idea what you mean.
HAL: Um… earthiness.
CP: Earthiness? The characters are too cerebral, they don’t share anything of themselves, or something like that?
HAL: It’s too controlled, the work is too controlled. When you see a David Williamson play, there is a grit in it, and a spontaneity. It feels real. This just doesn’t feel real.
CP: David Williamson is also kind of caricatured. The characters are larger than life, stereotypes, etc.
HAL: They look like people who’ve walked in off the street. None of these characters really do. The play is trying too hard.
CP: Was it suspenseful?
HAL: To a limited extent.
CP: It’s one of these stories where there are gradual revelations?
HAL: It is, but it’s almost Pinteresque, they want to draw it out.
CP: Were there any surprises in this play?
HAL: Well I suppose the humour of the… when the yoga freak back on drugs walks in… And I suppose Hugo proved that, no he isn’t going back on drugs, and that was the only suspense in the whole story… The other surprise is that, you know, Hugo has a brother in the band. And there’s the unexplained issue with some child.
CP: And you were bored?
HAL: It just didn’t work for me.
CP: Did you feel like walking out?
HAL: I felt like walking on the stage and saying, Do something.
CP: That’s so rude.
HAL: I felt like just going on there and just interacting with them and shaking them and saying to the characters, Wake up to yourself. It just frustrated me. I mean, at least smash a plate, do something interesting.
CP: Nothing stood out as good about the script?
HAL: Oh okay. There’s the going to the toilet in the fridge scene, which I suppose is a high point in a low way. And I would have loved to have seen more guitar playing on stage.
CP: Did Hugo play?
HAL: No, there’s a character who’s a new guitarist who plays on stage, and that made it feel like it was actually about a rock band, and I would have liked more of that, that would have worked for me.
CP: Would you recommend the play to anyone to see?
HAL: Look, a friend of mine almost drove four hours to see it. And, to be quite honest with you, I’m glad she didn’t, I think she would have been disappointed.
CP: Do you find that your perspective on the play has changed with time? You still feel the same way you did immediately after seeing it?
HAL: Yes, I do.
CP: And you’re saying you really hated it and it was a waste of three hours.
HAL: It could have been an excellent play, but it wasn’t. It lacked grit, it lacked a focal point and something hard-hitting and decisive. I mean, at least in a play where someone dies there’s a climax and there’s a sense of something that’s happened.
CP: There was no sense of anything happening in this play?
HAL: It was retrospective. It lacked the now, the crunch point. The worst thing that happened was that the yoga freak walks off stage, does drugs, and then comes back on again. That’s supposed to be exciting?
CP: Did it give you any insights into human nature, a different way of life…?
HAL: I suppose to a limited extent it gives an insight into the dynamics of a rock band and the conflict between each of the egos in it. And — you know — how when they get back together they get into this routine of alcohol, drugs, and whatever else.
CP: Sounds a bit cliche.
HAL: It was. It was just heart-lacking. And it lacked a climax. For god’s sake, put a climax in it, do something.
CP: Might as well ask this question. So if the actors ever read this, what would you like to say to Hugo Weaving, Jeremy Sims, Susie Porter…?
HAL: You did your best with a frustrating script. They’re great actors, but I suppose when you’re dealing with a frustrating script there’s only so much you can do with it. When I see an Ensemble play, I feel moved by it, and I react to it at an emotional level, but there is nothing to relate to at an emotional level in this play, it’s all in the head, and that is the problem with it, that is the crux of why this play doesn’t work. It doesn’t engage people at the heart level. I didn’t feel that the script really went anywhere or that it had a lot of meaning or that it illuminated my life. It was the seeds of a good play, but it just didn’t get there. I was expecting more from it, but maybe the point was that there wasn’t supposed to be more, and I wasn’t looking at it the right way. I think I was expecting something punchier.
CP: Okay, so there you have it, folks. And thanks for your time, HAL.
Riflemind is playing at the Sydney Theatre Company from Friday 5 October 2007 to Saturday 8 December 2007. Standing room tickets are still available ($27) — see the website for more details.
Written by Andrew Upton.
Director — Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Set — Richard Roberts.
Lighting — Damien Cooper.
Music — Max Lyandvert.
Martin Csokas as "Phil".
Ewen Leslie as "Lee".
Susie Porter as "Cindy".
Susan Prior as "Lynn".
Steve Rodgers as "Moon".
Jeremy Sims as "Sam".
Hugo Weaving as "John".
Whole lot of reviews and other material online, of course. Will just link to a sprinkling:
— STC website .
— SMH review by Bryce Hallett — "Upton has his sights set on fascinating ideas about creativity and the chasm between the public and private, appearance and pain, as well as the little things that can trip people over the edge. The production gives the ideas breathing space but it’s too often that the drama, much like the characters, get stuck in a rut… Curiously, Riflemind conveys more when characters falter and have little to say, than in the hot-headed, sarcastic rants when it’s just words, words, words – sometimes delivered loudly and to little effect."
— Variety review by Michaela Boland — "The entertaining production leaves a number of plot points up in the air but Upton has infused ‘Riflemind’ with lots of clever, often very funny one-liners. The play is staged on a warm, contempo kitchen-living room set designed by Richard Roberts, and Hoffman’s assured direction is innovative and vibrant."
— Stage Noise review by Diana Simmonds — "The first half is interminably realistic as the characters gather and obliquely introduce themselves to us. They then fail to communicate, argue or relate for some considerable time. Upton has a finely tuned ear for the fragmentary, desultory, meandering ways of real life ‘conversation’… ‘It takes two frigging hours to get to the point,’ says Sam. He… could have been talking about Riflemind."
— AussieTheatre review by Maz Dixon — "His dialogues are carefully modelled on natural patterns of speech, with sentences trailing off or being overridden by others. In this he is clearly a disciple of Pinter… The problem is that, having carefully drawn his characters, Upton then dips them in quick-drying concrete. There doesn’t seem to be much progression in the way of character development or plot… By the end I felt like I had just spent a couple of hours watching a group of mildly unpleasant people yelling at each other. I felt that I would have been able to engage with the characters more if Upton had just let something, anything, happen."
— Australian Stage Online review by James Waites — "Upton’s writing style is so weighted in subtext and sprinkled with allusion, some on opening night were left wondering if they had even seen a play at all… It is easy to feel that not enough is actually be said in plain enough English by the characters, and scenes (especially in the first act) are left off sometimes just moments before you think the vital point is about to be made. More than a few on opening night were quite put off… we would have had a major disaster on our hands if the production had not been so well directed and cast."