I am not normally the sort of person to complain about a lack of “Australian stories” on theatre stages. I have a certain amount of belief in the universality of the human race and don’t really care where a play is written or who it is written for as long as it’s good. I’m much more critical of television in this respect, and get really excited whenever home grown shows do well – I was over the moon the other day when I found out that Gruen Nation won the ratings for Wednesday. I think this differing standard is due to the fact that television has a larger audience and stands to affect our culture more dramatically. Anyway, this is getting off topic. The point is that I don’t give plays extra brownie points for being written by Australian playwrights. I think this is perhaps also related to the writing I normally like which is generally more international issue based than local problem based. However, in the case of Gwen In Purgatory, I felt a definite sense of pride that it was written by an Australian for an Australian audience.
If I’m honest with myself, there is one big reason for this – the play is set less than an hour away from my hometown of Goulburn and Goulburn even warrants a mention in the play (even if it is only for our gaol). I’m sure for people who live in New York or London it would be exhausting to get excited about every new film or TV series or play that mentions your home city, but for me, it is downright exhilarating to hear the words “he went to Goulburn” on a stage. Apart from this irrational excitement, it also means that I get most of the local references, which is nice, but far from enough to carry almost two hours of theatre. Fortunately however, Tommy Murphy has written a delightful play with characters who are fascinating and perhaps more to the point, familiar.
Gwen is 90 and has just moved into a new house. Not just any house, but rather one of those new development type places that exist on the edges of towns and look like they were bought from IKEA and then simply put together on site. The sort of place one drives past and thinks “who would ever want to live out here?” To which one answers, “I guess rich retirees who want to get away from the city”. Gwen is certainly not rich, but she is definitely a retiree, perhaps several times over. As we watch this slice of life, we soon discover that her children’s stories are just as important here and are in fact at the centre of the drama that drives the play. What makes it so compelling is that every person who is shown on stage is someone that you’ve met. You’ve met the troubled grandson who’s job has saved him from worse, you’ve met the slimy uncle who’s out to make a buck wherever he can, you’ve met the worried mother who’s trying for a new life. Perhaps the only person one is likely to not have met is the Catholic priest who’s come over from Nigeria, and he is certainly someone worth meeting. This is not to say that they are stereotypes, far from it, but rather that in this case, we are seeing art reflecting life in the positive sense of the term.
It is the characters’ likeability that gives the play its success. With perhaps one exception, I found myself drawn to everyone who appeared, desperate to give them all a fair hearing. I found myself particularly drawn to Peg, whose story of a life dedicated to others I found most touching. Neil Armfield, as always, has brought out the humanity in the play to its fullest, and I can’t really imagine the work in any other director’s hands. It is a compliment to the production that rather than coming out in awe of all the actors, I was simply left with love and affection for the characters. So much these days I spend my time admiring craft rather than content, but there was none of that here, for the stage was too well inhabited.
In the end however, I found myself dissatisfied with the play’s conclusion. It seemed to me that Murphy had created this fruitful situation full of beautifully real and fleshed out characters, only to have it all end rather abruptly. It all went quite fast for me, and I was genuinely waiting for a second act when the lights came up. I knew there was no interval and thus assumed that there was going to be some sort of theatrical break. This is quite an achievement really. I genuinely thought there was at least another 40 minutes of play to go. So to make an hour and 40 feel like only an hour is a tribute to both Armfield and Murphy. But it was also truly disappointing that there was no more material.
However, I’ve come to accept lately that I hate most endings to plays. Good endings are just so hard to find, and especially in a slice of life style play such as this, it is always hard to find the point where that slice finishes. So I guess that’s my only real criticism… I wanted more from the characters. I wanted more story. I wanted a second act that delved even further into this family’s machinations. But for my only desire to be more of the same, I guess that’s a fairly laudable achievement.