Critique: The Grenade
Interesting title page. Makes you wonder what the play might be about – very cryptic, it is. Personally, I thought it was going to be about a Futurama type world where Garry McDonald had had his head chopped off and placed in one of those preserving jars that they have on the show. I was wrong, unfortunately.
Anyway. We first have an advertisement for Perpetual:
What the hell are they talking about? “History has shown that change only respects those who respect it.” Since when was change a person/thing that could dish out respect? “Have you met Change? He’s a very respectful person, as long as you respect him. Always rattling coins in his pocket, though – but don’t mention it, he gets a bit iffy when people point out his flaws.”
Secondly, what are the lions supposed to represent? The market? Does the lion at the front represent “change”? And do the rest of the lions represent a lack of change, a normality? Since when is a row of man-eating lions on stools normal? Since when could a lion tamer – who I assume that Princess Leia hologram look-alike is – handle six lions at once? Is Perpetual trying to imply that even though they say that they can handle change, they’re instead about as well equipped to deal with it as this outnumbered lion tamer?
“Stop over thinking it, Adam,” I hear you say. Whatever.
The next thing of interest is a donation plea:
Contact the Foundation Coordinator Tina Ferguson to make a donation, eh? Make a donation to help ensure that the STC continues to present the very best theatrical experiences that it can, eh?
Dear Ms. Ferguson (if that is indeed your real name),
My name is Adam. I run a website called Epistemysics. I am also an STC audience member.
I read in your recent dispatch in the program for The Grenade that you were seeking donations to help ensure that the STC continues to present the very best theatrical experiences that it can. I am not rich (rather I am very poor) but I would like to help with this admirable goal.
You did not specify in the aforementioned dispatch whether a person could apply any conditions to the money that they give, but I assume that this is not a problem. My idea is as follows.
I will donate ten dollars (please, do not fall out of your chair in surprise – I know it is a large amount) if you promise to (a) burn all Joanna Murray-Smith manuscripts currently contained in the STC offices, (b) never let another manuscript of the previously mentioned playwright into the STC office again, and (c) never put on a production of any of her plays from now until eternity.
I think we can both agree that these measures would not only boost the coffers of the STC, but also ensure that the very best theatrical experiences are presented.
I look forward to hearing from you soon.
P.S.: If there are problems with burning the manuscripts – such as fire regulations, for example – then feel free to send them to me, and I will dispose of them. My friends and I have developed a rudimentary sacrifical ritual that will suffice to destroy not only the manuscripts but the demons inside of them as well.
There. Now don’t say I don’t ever do anything nice!
Next we have the biographies. Of interest is the playwright’s:
If you’ll cast your gaze to the top right hand corner, you’ll see that there is a quote from none other than the playwright himself.
Next is an article entitled “Fear”, by who I can only assume is Paul Galloway, someone who apparently does the program notes for the Melbourne Theatre Company.:
Then we have a quote about etiquette from a book called In the Culture of Fear. Then another article by Mr. Galloway entitled “Risk”:
Then another called “Push”, about political lobbying. Then an extract about lobbying.
And that’s it for the interesting content. Not that it’s particularly interesting. Mind you, it’s more interesting than the usual STC fare – the articles actually seem somewhat intelligent (though they’re not telling us anything particularly revelatory). The main problem I had when reading it all, however, is that I didn’t know who was writing it – I assumed it was Mr. Galloway, but was it? There was no acknowledgement at the end of the article. It just sounded like some random guy talking about stuff that related to the play, rather than any kind of expert on the subject. That, plus it wasn’t very interesting, as I’ve said. I didn’t learn anything. It was all just…bland.
And then there’s the fact that there’s no writer’s or director’s notes! What happened to them? They’re usually a staple of any STC program – and suddenly they’ve been thrown away? Why? It’s not that the playwright wasn’t alive to write something – he’s even quoted in the biography! And the director is obviously still living. At least I think that’s a relatively safe bet. I mean, I’m always fighting to try and get more notes from the other creatives – the set designer, and so on – and then I find that we don’t even get the notes from the writer anymore?
Anyway, the Longest Column Award this time goes to…Mitchell Butel! Congratulations Mr. Butel – you get a year’s supply of barbecue gas.
So. The score.
1 for the biographies, 1 for the photos, 1 for “Fear”, 1 for “Risk”, 1 for “Push”, and .5 each for “Etiquette” and “Lobby”. Which gives us…
Good theatre teaches us about life. Bad theatre teaches us patience. The Grenade taught me more patience than a game of Solitaire.
Let me set the scene, as it were, for you. The 13th of November – a Saturday – was a hot day. You know the type of heat that comes before the flush of a thunderstorm? That kind of temperature, but with no thunderstorm in sight (at least for the first half of the day). Hot, humid, and stickier than super-glue flavoured bubblegum, it was the type of weather that makes the talcum powder industry jump for joy.
This was the day that I didn’t have access to a car.
This was the day that CityRail, in all their wondrous glory, had decided to undertake extensive trackwork on my train line.
All hail CityRail!
The matinee performance of The Grenade was scheduled for 2:00pm. I left my house at 11:35am, walked for 15-20 minutes, waited for a train, caught a train to the stop where the trackwork began, disembarked from said train and made my way onto a crowded bus with no air-conditioning, stood for 30 minutes pressed much more intimately than I would have liked against strangers as the bus rocked back and forth, disembarked from said bus, waited for another train, caught that train, disembarked from that train, waited for another train, caught that train, disembarked from that train, spent 5-10 minutes walking to the Opera House, and arrived with twenty minutes to spare before the performance started. To summarise: I took three trains and a bus, and still had to walk for twenty five minutes or so, just to get to the theatre.
If ever there was a time that I was open to a comedy lifting my mood, it was that Saturday. Plus the Drama Theatre had air-conditioning! It was as if my two most pressing needs (once one discards food and water) were as prepared as they would ever be to be met.
My trip home was much the same but in reverse, obviously. I left my house at 11:35am and arrived back there at 6:05pm. The Grenade went for two hours sharp. So, to see a 2 hour play, I had to make a six and a half hour round trip.
Was it worth it?
Fuck no. I’d rather eat my testicles and convert to Scientology before I did something like that again. (You can quote that.) Anyway.
My MP3 player has an FM radio that I listen to more than I do the MP3s on it – I frequency surf, basically. If one station starts playing advertisements or a song I don’t like, I switch to another, and so on. Another interesting feature of said pocket-technology are the earphones that I currently use – they are broken in such a way as to require me to hold the cord at a certain angle (that is often unknown to me) so that the audio signal will travel from the player to my ears. I have a new set of earphones that I could use, but I’d rather wear the other ones out completely before I switch – holding the cord is not that much of a hassle for me. Unless, of course, you’re packed in a bus and need both hands to stop yourself from flying through the windscreen, and so have to keep your MP3 player in your pocket where you can’t control the angle of the cord. And when you can’t control the angle of the cord, or even control the MP3 player itself, you are stuck listening to one station, and your experience of this station is akin to watching a television on a Merry-Go-Round while you stand stationary off to one side, surrounded by sweaty people, and during an earthquake.
This experience was more enjoyable than the play.
Obviously I felt that something must be done about this, that people should be warned, and so I’m writing this review. But as large as my audience is (and it’s not that large, not that large at all…oh god I feel so lonely and unappreciated and invisible sometimes that I think that if someone out there, just one person, said something nice or gave me a hug or offered me the position of chief drama critic for one of the major newspapers (perhaps The Australian – John McCallum sounds like he could be getting on in years – it might be wise to replace him with someone younger before he breaks a hip) then I’d feel much better) it doesn’t have the same reach as, say, the website of the Sydney Theatre Company – especially the “Your Say” section:
But as we all learnt from my review of the STC 2011 Season, even though we are invited to submit our comments, both positive and negative, as the following excerpt from the 2011 Season Booklet shows:
There is, on inspection of the comments that have been posted to the STC website (all of which are positive), an ever so slight chance of some form of censorship going on. Though censorship is such a harsh word – I much prefer selective electronic deafness. So, faced with the fact that no matter how much I shouted I would be met only by a disabled hearing aid, I gave up.
Yes, that’s right – I gave up. I fashioned my white underpants into a makeshift flag and surrendered. You hear that, STC? You win this round.
I SAID, YOU WIN THIS… CAN YOU HEAR ME? I SAID… TURN YOUR HEARING AID… TURN YOUR HEARING AID ON! TURN IT ON! ON…oh, forget it.
I wasn’t going to abandon everything, however. If I can’t post my thoughts on the STC website, then I sure as hell am going to make fun of the people who have posted on the website. Which turns out to be just one person – Eamon:
Eamon could be the swimmer Eamon Sullivan, or the actor Eamon Farren. Or he could be demonspawn. I’m thinking he’s the latter.
Eamon enjoyed the show, as we can see – perhaps he was drunk, perhaps he was on a date and was fooling around with his she-devil girlfriend in the back row instead of watching the play, or perhaps he’s had a frontal lobotomy – who knows.
It’s a short review, thankfully – but apparently just because it’s short doesn’t mean that Eamon can’t get his money’s worth from his thesaurus! “Incendiary, masterful, encyclopedic, and novel dialogue”? Were three adjectives not enough? Apparently not. At least we can agree that the dialogue was incendiary – it does produce a very strong desire for self-immolation in audience members. You could even go so far as to say that it produces a burning desire.
Oh, shut up. I laughed.
And then there’s this “fantastically unique cast” – isn’t every cast unique, by the fact that all humans are unique? It’s tautology disguised as a compliment! And people have the nerve to say that critics are unnecessary! And I feel like I should be using another exclamation mark! And another! Argh!
Deep breath. Calm, two, three, four. Be happy, Jan.
But it’s just that – well, I hope beyond hope that Eamon is not representative of the majority of the STC audience. And I hope beyond hope that Eamon never lets his thoughts out onto the internet again – his review has so many adjectives that it reads more as an acrostic poem with one word per line than a paragraph made up of sentences – maybe he has a very short attention span.
Oh. My. God.
Okay. I officially take back everything bad I just said about Eamon. I’ve just realised his genius.
Oh, this is precious. Oh, this is magnificent! (I’d say “oh” again but I don’t want to risk an orgasm.)
Do you see it? No? Let me write out the comment for you in a different way:
Do you see it now? It’s a brickbat disguised as a bouquet! Take the first letter of each word and you get “wasteoffuckingtimeandmoney”, or, I assume, “Waste of fucking time and money”. Brilliant! The play was so bad that it’s turning its audience militant – long live freedom fighter Eamon, breaking through the bonds of the STC’s selective electronic deafness!
Of course, there’s the chance that no one else will actually notice this and the only effect this comment will have is to sell more tickets, but still!
Oh. Oh. I need a cigarette. Except I don’t smoke. Maybe I’ll just have a glass of water.
I’m going to be smiling for the rest of the week now. Eamon, if you’re reading – bravo, I say, bravo. And encore! Encore!
Anyway. I best be talking about the actual play at some point. Now seems like a good time to start. Here’s the blurb:
Someone has planted a grenade in the kitchen of the McTavish family home. Although the pin remains firmly in place, political consultant and man of the house Busby McTavish (Garry McDonald) has just exploded into a paranoid frenzy of security insecurity.
No one is above suspicion. And in Busby’s line of work he could have any number of enemies.
As if the prospect of an imminent and gruesome death weren’t sufficient reason to be anxious, Busby has other causes for paranoia. Randy Savage, a sexually voracious author of erotic fiction, is paying an alarming amount of attention to his wife, while his precious daughter is being wooed by the slightly strange, balaclava-clad Wheat. Who are these men and why are they trying to steal his women?
As Busby attempts to discover the identity of the phantom grenade planter he finds himself becoming increasingly obsessed with protecting those he loves. In doing so, he risks exposing them all to an even greater danger…
A play for our security-obsessed times, The Grenade is the latest hilarious romp from indomitable comic playwright, Tony McNamara (The Great, The Give and Take). This whodunit comedy of fidelity, marriage and inter-generational relationships plays in the Drama Theatre of Sydney Opera House from 4 November 2010.
Well now. That doesn’t sound like the play I saw. Then again, most blurbs don’t.
From the opening minutes of The Grenade, I knew I was in for a bad day at the theatre. Indeed, I can pinpoint the actual moment when it dawned on me that I wouldn’t be enjoying myself. It was right at the start, when the family were pecking at some fortune cookies. Lola McTavish (Eloise Mignon), the daughter, who strikes me as a girl who is one reading of Marx away from being an extreme annoyance to a large population of whatever university campus she chooses to situate herself in, protests that her stepmother, Sally McTavish (Belinda Bromilow) is eating her fortune cookie before she’s finished her dinner, or reading her fortune before she’s eaten her cookie, or something along those lines – it’s very hard to remember the specifics when your brain is trying to bury things as fast as possible in your subconscious. Sally reads her fortune aloud. Then Busby reads his.
A slight tangent – when I say they “read their fortunes aloud”, I actually mean that they read fortunes, as opposed to the proverbs/sayings that I always seem to get in my fortune cookies – if I wanted a proverb then I’d buy proverb cookies, damn it! Anyway.
It comes time for Lola to read hers, and she proceeds: ‘Help, I’m trapped in a Gangzhou prison and being forced to make fortune cookies.”
This was the moment.
You see, I’ve heard this joke before. I also say this joke regularly to amuse others (though I say “help, I’m a prisoner in a Chinese bakery”). It’s not that the joke isn’t funny (though it’s not exactly the most hilarious thing I’ve ever heard). It’s not that the joke has been stolen from me (I didn’t make it up). It’s that the joke has been, well, borrowed, from the world. A writer writing cliches is bad enough, let alone one who actually takes jokes fully formed from society and sticks them in his play. It’s uber-cliche, is what it is.
I should say that I’m not suggesting that Mr. McNamara borrowed every joke in his play from another source, though the play may have been much better if he had…
Anyway, that was the moment I knew the play would be terrible.
I’ve just been reading If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino, and one of the themes in that is, for example, if you only have one chapter of a book, does that make the universe that that one chapter of the book describes any less significant than if you had had the whole book? It’s a kind of narrative determinism, I suppose. The opening moments of a book invariably determine the following moments, both in relation to plot and quality. The same goes with plays as well.
Of course, there are exceptions to this, such as Twelfth Night, also on at the Opera House at the moment, where the entire play is framed by a ridiculous meta-story of bushfire victims who just happen to find a copy of the collected works of Shakespeare and just happen to be able to perform the entire play by only looking at the script for the first few minutes. That was a horrible opening moment of a generally good play. But The Grenade has no meta-tricks to it, and so the rule stands, if it can be called a rule.
The characters are also underwhelming. We have the tight family unit of father, stepmother, and daughter, which is boring because their interactions are so domestically cliche – Lola thinks that she’s a freak because people at school say she is, while her father is in love with her and thinks she’s perfect. That’s fine – I can handle that in a play. Having to listen to the characters discuss this point for five to ten minutes, however, is not particularly exciting to me, especially when the jokes are so mediocre. The wife, a pulp romance writer (oh look, one of the characters is a writer (that’s original) and not even a good one – much like the playwright!), is struggling with her art. What fun it is to listen to her whine.
The four other characters in the play – the ‘eccentrics’, if you will, who are there to incite some action, fail miserably. The first is Randy Savage (Bret Labonte), the erotic fiction writer with a past that seems to involve service in every military in the world, who comes to co-author a book with Sally, though he is less randy and savage and more bland and damaged. He spends half the time talking about how much more erotic he thinks everyone should be and the other half relating to us the finer points of his earlier years.
Then there’s Wheat (Gig Clarke), Lola’s high school beau, who, unlike his name, does not sway gently in the wind – rather he stands throughout the play as if he’s trying to surreptitiously look over a neighbour’s fence, like a meerkat with a pole up its digestive tract. He’s meant to be “edgy” but comes off as someone who you’d give a good push if they were standing near an edge.
And then there’s Whitman (Mitchell Butel), Busby’s assistant, who’s gay, I assume, because at one point he describes masturbating one of his bullies. And that’s pretty much all we learn about Whitman.
I think I’m boring myself just writing about these characters. God knows how Mr. McNamara managed to sustain himself. Very powerful and hallucinogenic drugs would be my guess.
There’s one more character – the baby, which makes itself known via the intercom/baby-monitor/whatever-it’s-called every now and then. It is a truly remarkable four month old. First it learns Esperanto, then it kills a bird with its bare hands, then it serenades its parents (among other things). Indeed, the baby probably has more character development than any other in the play. Of course, one would expect that this type of running joke – the impossibly intelligent and somewhat demonic baby – would have some sort of payoff at the end of the play, that all this time we’re spending on these tangents from the plot (pathetic as it is) might be leading somewhere, leading to a nice denouement where we suddenly realise that this baby was far more important than just the running joke we had assumed it to be. You would expect this. You’d be disappointed.
This leads nicely into one of the main problems of the play – the distinction between absurdity and reality. The Grenade seems to want to have a bit both – to be a bit absurd and a bit real. Absurdity can work – especially in a farce – but if The Grenade was meant to be a farce then it was one of the slowest and least entertaining that I’ve ever seen. Reality can work too, but there’s just enough absurdity to make the reality seem weird (the play does start off with a grenade in the living room, after all). Indeed, we never seem to find out how the eponymous grenade found its way into the McTavish household anyway – at the end Sally says something to the effect of, “Busby, you must have put it there,” to which Busby reluctantly concurs, though it’s never actually explained how Busby would have (a) thought to put a grenade in his living room, (b) somehow acquired said grenade (which are, as you know, extremely easy to get in Australia – why I just bought a pack of ten the other day – who needs fireworks when you’ve got military explosives!), and (c), why he seemed to completely and utterly forget that he had bought this grenade (he never actually remembers, rather, after deciding that it wasn’t jockeys or the other men in the play (that is, apparently, the only other possibilities), he naturally assumes that he must have somehow procured it and not remembered anything – Occam’s Razor, anyone?). At least that’s what I think happened – I was starting to contemplate death by that point.
Perhaps absurdity and reality can blend well together in some cases. Not in this play.
The next major problem is the idea of the play – the theme, if you will. It’s very simple. Busby (i.e., us), sees a threat (the grenade) and overreacts to it. He becomes paranoid. He rules his life by fear. Goodness gracious – this sounds like it might have some parallels to real life!
And it does. If we didn’t know that as we were watching then we would’ve realised after reading the program. Listening to the characters describe how their situation is similar to ours – or rather, listening to the characters debate the ideas of paranoia/overprotection versus taking-a-risk – is tedious. Tom Stoppard could talk about the idea of pond-scum versus pool-algae and make it interesting. Mr. McNamara cannot. If the play had just gone on a farcical course rather than stopping to reflect constantly and expound upon certain theories, then it would have stood a fair chance of being a better play (I’m not guaranteeing anything, though).
What else was wrong… Did I mention that I was so bored that I considered pulling hairs from my legs individually just so I could feel something during the play? No? How about that I was so bored that I tried to use my telekinetic skills (which I’ve found I have very little of) to lift the knife off the kitchen bench on the set and chase the actors around with it? I didn’t? I’m so forgetful these days!
There’s a quote in the program from David I. Altheide that sums up the themes in the play quite nicely: “It is not the fear of danger that is most critical, but rather what this fear can expand into, what it can become. Social life changes when people live behind walls, hire guards, drive around in armoured vehicles, carry mace and handguns, and take martial arts classes. The problem is that these activities re-affirm and help produce a sense of disorder that our actions perpetrate.”
There. That’s the theme for you. That’s what you’re supposed to get out of the play. So now you don’t have to go and see it! (You could send me the money instead if you were so inclined.) Aren’t I nice?
And I think that’s the end of the review. Shorter than normal, but I’d rather not dwell.
The score? 1 for the set, which was quite good, and 1 for the actors turning up. So that makes a total of 2. I’m being generous.
Just before I go, I feel that I should mention Honour by Joanna Murray-Smith at some point. There are three plays that I can clearly say were the worst that I have ever seen. Honour and The Grenade are two of them, and both were part of the STC season this year – well done!
Oh, and yes, just because this play is in the area of a David Williamson play – as I was walking back from the Opera House, taking the “Writer’s Walk” – an area of the harbour which has bronzed circles on the ground upon which are engraved the names of certain ‘important’ writers along with a quote from them, as well as some biographical information – I saw Mr. Williamson’s plaque. I gave it an extra hard thump as I went over it. Didn’t really do anything, but it made me feel better.
2/10. The Grenade by Tony McNamara at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, until…what does it matter, I don’t want you to buy a ticket anyway. Directed by Peter Evans. With Belinda Bromilow, Mitchell Butel, Gig Clarke, Bert Labonte, Garry McDonald, and Eloise Mignon. Set by Richard Roberts. Costume by Alexis George. Lighting by Matt Scott. Composition by David Franzke.