Sometimes there’s not enough time or space to do justice to theatre in a newspaper review. That’s the case with Joanna Murray-Smith’s The Gift, which I’m seeing again next week, with a view to writing a more extended review essay. One strand saliently missing from my review is what the play has to say about the philosophy of art. Nevertheless, I offer up this little piece of “Cameron Woodhead unsubbed” as a starting point for discussion. (Should you wish to comment, please refrain from spoilers. Anything that reveals the twist in Murray-Smith’s new play will be summarily deleted.)
The Gift. By Joanna Murray-Smith, Directed by Maria Aitken, Performed by Heather Bolton, Richard Piper, Matt Dyktynski, and Elizabeth Debicki, MTC, Sumner Theatre. Until July 9.
Is Joanna Murray-Smith the natural successor to David Williamson? The two playwrights share a talent for middle-class social comedy and witty one-liners. Both tend to divide critics. It’s fair to say Murray-Smith’s wild recent satires, tackling old-guard feminism (The Female of the Species) and celebrity adoption (Rockabye), have outclassed Williamson’s over the same period.
Yet there’s another string to Murray-Smith’s bow – emotionally intelligent, character-driven, psychologically astute drama. That’s as true of her most performed play, Honour, as it is of the sharp, shapely monologues in last year’s Songs for Nobodies. The last time Williamson succeeded on this level was probably After the Ball, more than a decade ago.
The Gift attempts to break new ground by overtly fusing social satire and intimate drama. It’s a brilliant, vexing play. The enthusiastic audience response might confirm Murray-Smith’s position as bankable storyteller to the tribe, and whatever its flaws, it’s certainly entertaining theatre that gnaws at the mind.
Two couples meet at a posh resort. They’re from different worlds. Ed and Sadie are rich and middle-aged, a businessman and housewife. Martin and Chloe are younger and struggling, a conceptual artist and an arts journalist. A friendship between rich philistines and arty bohemians might be impeded by a crust of mutual suspicion in the real world. Trapped together in an enclave of leisure, the awkwardness falls away.
The progression of this unlikely bond is skilfully handled. Maria Aitken has a highly developed comic intelligence (she’s a renowned interpreter of Noel Coward plays), and conducts the dialogue with a wonderfully light hand. Timing is central to comedy, and the opening act is as fluid and vividly syncopated as jazz, for which Ed and Martin share a mutual passion.
When Martin saves Ed from drowning in a boating accident, Ed wants to give a gift in return. Unable to decide on one, the couples promise to meet again a year later. Telling you more would ruin the play’s provocative surprise.
It will divide people, the surprise. I thought it lacked psychological credibility, but the way the second half of The Gift is performed, it’s unclear whether it’s intended as the blackest of black comedies, or whether it shifts goalposts into private tragedy.
Indeed, the toxic cloud of uncertainty the play throws up may be part of its point. Even so, for the black comedy to convince, Martin and Chloe need to be more effectively caricatured. And for their tragic situation to move, we need a clearer sense of the dynamics of their relationship and its inferred suffering.
This last is achieved with Ed and Sadie by allowing them to break the frame and address the audience directly. Perhaps repeating this device with the younger couple might work. Direct monologue would have to be better than the formless prevarication that consumes a substantial fraction of the second act, and makes Martin and Chloe seem impossibly callous and narcissistic.
The performances are entertaining, and infinitely better than, say, the cursory, workmanlike acting in Williamson’s Let the Sunshine – another play about two unlikely couples – where you could almost see paycheques in the actors’ eyes as they strolled dutifully about the stage.
Richard Piper and Heather Bolton make a convincing married couple, their emotional chemistry – from finishing each other’s thoughts to the unspoken comfort of shared pain – is endearing and droll, even if Piper overplays his character’s artistic ‘enlightenment’.
Matt Dyktynski and Elizabeth Debicki as Martin and Chloe are weaker. As played, Debicki’s character is nothing like an arts journalist; while Dyktynski has the idealism of an artist without the charisma. Diagnosing the problem is difficult. Performance and script are at fault in hard to determine quantities.
Joanna Murray-Smith can write one-liners to die for, and there are plenty of laughs in this new work. But if she has indeed attempted to finesse the anxieties of marriage, parenthood and the creative life into a play that dives from light comedy into intimate drama, the drama doesn’t have the emotional fuel it needs. One thing’s for sure, The Gift is theatre unnerving and vital enough to have you arguing about it all the way home.