Sydney Morning Herald
August 18, 1995
Reviewer: James Waites
A masterpiece in the theatre is not simply good text, and the text for a potential masterpiece may be as unwieldy and structurally flawed as King Lear or Hamlet. Stephen Sewell’s The Blind Giant Is Dancing is, director Neil Armfield says in the program, on the sprawling side; but it needs to embrace the enormous palette of ideas the writer takes on.
Only Sewell among Australian playwrights has shown a capacity to embrace both the personal and the political, separately, and as each exists within the other. Only he has shown, in this remarkable 1983 play and several others, how the world really works on us as people in this age of capitalism.
So many of us benefit from the rewards of this system, questions regarding its moral underpinnings are unwillingly raised. And if they are it is usually in so feeble an undergraduate format that we quiet reasonably seek to silence the drone with another bottle of chardonnay.
Sewell is not nearly so facile, and indeed this play, with its focus on the inner workings of the Fitzgerald family, could easily be dubbed a domestic drama. Allen (Hugo Weaving) is a social economist, a tireless worker for the (Labour) Party Left.
He comes form a good Catholic working-class home represented by his father Doug (Peter Carroll) and brother Bruce (Jason Clarke), both steelworkers, an mother Eileen (Kerry Walker); he married, unhappily now, to Louise Kraus (Catherine McClements) a Jewish feminist refuge worker.
For all its political pungency and scope, the most powerful scene in this production is the family gathering, a barbecue, where tensions simmering below the surface rise only to be forced back down. This scene – worked up to a level of hypnotic clarity by Armfield and his superb cast – caught the opening night’s audience by surprise. It was then we knew we were witness to a remarkable theatrical event.
Weaving’s Allen is a man of idealistic and principled origins, but there is poison in his blood, passed onto him by a cold and unyielding father. Allen’s enemy is Michael Wells (Russell Keifel), leader of the party’s dominant Right faction. And as their struggle drifts helplessly from the ideological to the personal, Allen subtly assumes his father’s pent up body language and angrily castrated voice-box.
The chief insight of the play is in its cogent demonstration of how much the individual in us is driven by larger forces and equally, how those forces can be shaped by often barely understood drives within ourselves.
Among many smaller moments of delight are Gillian Jones’s hilarious (birthday) party animal, Janice Lang, and Steve Rodgers’s disgusting freelance economist and banker, Bob Lang – at whose party this Canberra-based history drama is launched. Ralph Cotterill’s criminal businessman, Graham White, and his industrialist, Sir Leslie Harris, are archetypal studies anyone who lived in Australia through the ’80s will recognise. Jacek Koman’s Chilean-born worker activist, Ramon, Kerry Walker’s Catholic mother Eileen and Keith Robinson’s faintly scary Trades Hall functionary are all fine characterisations.
Catherine McClements as the increasingly embittered wife, and Cate Blanchett, in the key role of temptress Rose Draper, are both wonderfully charged with feminine energy, independent and bold in their outlooks. Peter Carroll, as the worker father, delivers one of his finest performances; Russell Keifel, as the cynical Wells, has also never been better: the body language (and shape) reminiscent of that not long departed celebrity right-factioner, Graham Richardson.
Weaving, also fantastic, finds a springboard into his bravura characterisation in the blunt, unforgiving Australian-ness of Sewell’s language and outlook. Weaving’s Allen is genuine, clever, searching, tortured from within, corruptible, corrupted – ultimately transformed into everything he once loathed.
This is a great play for now. It gives us a chance to look back on who we were in the ’70s, barking the noises of various liberation theologies from our student campuses. What, as Wendy Bacon asks in her program essay have we become? And this is a brilliant production of a remarkable play. Armfield, too, pushes beyond his known limits once again: the stage bare but for a great long table on wheels, serving as a great divide, across which the characters argue but rarely find resolution.
Fine work from all involved on the production side, with a special note for Edie Kurzer’s superbly observed costumes.