August 18, 1995
Reviewer: John McCallum
"The world is a perfect reflection of the human heart." This profoundly gloomy thought, given the state of the world, is constantly questioned but never really challenged by the presence in Stephen Sewell’s plays of a few sudden gleams of hope and love, always already defeated when they emerge.
His characters only ever speak of their love for each other in urgent cries of pain at the end of long scenes of bitter powerstruggles, recrimination and despair.
It is not a love that we can feel for or empathise with in his theatre, but somehow it is needed if we are to understand how our personal and public lives go together.
The Blind Giant Is Dancing is a dramatic exploration of how as individuals we make the world and the world makes us. Public crimes are reflections of private evils, evils produced by having to live in a world of public crimes. In pursuing this endless cycle, Sewell sometimes seems to be on a spiritual quest to find some redemption in the tiny but palpable fact of existence of impotent hope in all our hearts.
The play, which was first produced in 1983, is completely over the top in an utterly compelling way. The pace increases breathlessly as the action develops. The scenes become shorter and shorter as its unwieldy and rushed narrative races towards apocalypse.
Sewell’s writing starts at the point when most plays reach their climax and then builds. Nothing is left unsaid, there is no subtlety or subtext, no argument is allowed to peter out with things unstated. This effect still operates in this pared down version (still three and a half hours) of the original. Sewell writes with a raw passion and deep seriousness rare in Australian drama.
This play comes from his first great "epic" period, when no stage or cast seemed large enough to contain the scope of his neurotic anguish. His plays then were epic, not in the sense of being about armies and long sweeps of time, but in the modern Brechtian sense of being about people’s private lives placed firmly in history.
Try to concentrate this intensity into a little two-hander like the chamber-piece recently produced in Sydney, Miranda, and the effect is simply too much. Give it space to breathe and roam about the stage and, in spite of its occasional strained self consciousness, the effect is stunning.
Large plays such as this need large productions, with acting that stretches itself. Neil Armfield’s fine ensemble, Company B, is well up to the difficult task of making this huge play work. I don’t know how he does it, but I think it is called giving the actors room to move. Armfield productions have a distinctive feel about them, yet they remain actor’s shows. Sometimes the actors seem scarcely to be aware of what they are doing, at least on opening nights, but whatever it is, we sit there wanting them to keep on doing it.
The staging and the music are simple, industrial and austere. It is in the performances that the power of this production is generated.
Hugo Weaving is terrific as Allen Fitzgerald, the idealist driven by a passion he does not understand and finally rejects, who makes a Faustian pact with the marvellous Cate Balnchett’s Rose Draper. Their relationship, almost surrealistically external to the grubby political story of the play, is in fact at its centre. It is finally reincorporated in the action in a way that makes the surreal pervade the everyday world of the play’s particularly bitter version of Realpolitik.
Rose seduces Allen, personally and politically, in order to test his purity, and her eventual triumph is completely hollow. "I hoped you’d win," she says just before the end.
Weaving’s Allen starts out at the beginning of the show already deeply and rather frighteningly disturbed. His road to corrupt public power is prefigured in his tense opening privet scenes with Catherine McClements, excellent as Louise, his wife. The personal origins of his final failure of hope and idealism are pursued in a series of vulnerable encounters with his family – the only scenes in which we feel the emotion of the whole farrago of guilt, disillusion and betrayal.
This is an ensemble that performs superbly and, apart from Weaving, Blanchett and McClements, there are several other performances that stand out. Peter Carroll and Kerry Walker, as Allen’s parents, seem to have wandered in from another play, so real and human are they in the comic barbeque scene, that opens Act 2. Jacek Koman is very good as Ramon, virtually the only conventionally honest character; and Jason Clarke, although the script gives him less to do until the end, succeeds well as Allen’s brother Bruce.
Finally, however, it is the company. Armfield points out in the program the intersection between this play’s theme and this company’s structure: that people together are stronger than when they are alone. It is wonderful to welcome again, after Hamlet and The Tempest, a great new company that puts its convictions on the line, and lets its industrial work reflect its artistic and intellectual passion.