The skewed world of Andrew Upton’s fractured and downcast play about a once-great rock band clinging to glory and lurching towards oblivion covers familiar ground when it comes to the famous and fallen. Most effectively, the skittishness, emptiness and loathing born of addiction and fear.
When the mid-40s members of the band Riflemind gather at the English country estate of their frontman, John (Hugo Weaving), they contemplate a comeback and another chance to soar like gods, if only to escape disharmony and the ravages of time.
After bitter quarrels, brain-addled banalities, power games and vacant stretches, the smug warrior John reflects on the seemingly joyful quest before the genuine became fake. "On our first gigs we couldn’t count on hotels and beer," he tells his comrade and acolyte Phil (Marton Csokas). "Cut of the door, pay for your own PA. We scratched around on people’s floors, friends. Parents. And then at some point, we were in this streamlined machine. Hurtling along. And the less I saw of life? The less I felt. It all just felt less …"
And so it is that the director, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and his design team, Richard Roberts (set), Damien Cooper (lighting) and Tess Schofield (costumes), conjure an impersonal "streamlined" space where the ageing rocker and his disconnected wife, Lynn (Susan Prior), have found comfort, or the illusion of it.
When they open the door to the past they let in disloyalties, demons and doubts. Almost all the characters are hard-bitten or disenchanted. The cracks, they suggest, will vanish in the collective act of creation when they are pulled back from individual panic and defeat.
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.
Weaving’s portrayal is adroitly crafted and he cuts a complex and commanding figure by the end. Hoffman’s staging is sharp, clear and loud, yet not thrillingly inventive.
Jeremy Sims impresses as the money-obsessed, sex-crazed Sam. Prior excels as the serene yet strung-out wife, although it’s a difficult role to negotiate given the shift from the pithy and whimsical to the overladen and deranged. But, then, that about sizes up the play given its bald patches, mood swings and discordant notes. 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.