Screwed by the Man: Review of Don’t Look Away’s Rooted
Don’t Look Away is the latest independent theatre group to spring up this year, and their first production, Alex Buzo’s 1969 play Rooted, is currently being staged at NIDA. Founder of the company, Phil Rouse also directs. Rooted is a dark little satirical comedy reflecting the attitudes held within our consumerist society, attitudes that still have plenty of relevance forty years on. The writing is quite witty, containing a number of bouncy passages that have an almost Beckettian rhythm whilst being imbued with that uniquely Australian vernacular. In his time Buzo was recognized as one of the main innovators of the Australian new wave theatre movement, and this play certainly speaks to that fact.
Rooted follows Bentley, a third level public servant, and his wife Sandy. They’ve just moved into a new apartment, but even in the midst of their housewarming things already seem to be taking a turn for the worst: Sandy on the verge of starting an affair with one of Bentley’s old school friends, the never seen Simmo. Despite Bentley’s appeals he is unable to sway his wife and Simmo eventually moves into the house, forcing Bentley out. He is powerless to stand up to his old mate.
Simmo himself comes to represent the ultimate trope of consumerism: the man owns a corporation (the function is never revealed); he is rich, successful, owning the best of everything and can get any lady he wants. Indeed the women become little more than products to be consumed and discarded. Interestingly, this theme is surrounded by another, that of mateship. All the male characters (Bentley, Gary, Richard and the never seen Simmo, Davo and Hammo) were part of the same school group. In almost every scene the characters are drawn into a process of reminiscences, harking back to their former times. Old friends frequently engage in stories of shared experiences to reaffirm and strengthen friendships; however in this play it offers an interesting juxtaposition between the past and the present.
The stories reveal the initial depth of the friendships, and in this process the idea that ‘you do right by your mates’ is established. However in the present the relationships become increasingly superficial as each character is sucked into Simmo’s sphere of influence. By the play’s end they are virtually nonexistent as a business and consumerist mentality has replaced them. It would seem that friendship is sacrificed to get ahead in life and, bleakest of all, it is suggested that unless you embrace the system, you will be crushed by it: Hammo, the only person to ever stand up to Simmo, is left a hopeless wreck and dies of alcoholism. At the play’s close Bentley looks to be headed for the same end.
In this production, Rouse has chosen to focus on the human capacity for cruelty (when it comes to getting ahead in life). While this is clearly evident in the characters’ behavior, it may be more symptomatic of what happens in a purely consumer based society rather than one of the primary themes of the play. Of course all texts are open to interpretation, but if this was to be their angle more could have been done in the staging to emphasise the idea. Further, the production could have done more to accentuate the consumerism inherent. For instance, Phil Rouse could have visually demonstrated the story arc using costume. The characters, as they became more absorbed by the consumerist world, could have become more superficial in dress. Clad in brands with polish, shine and makeup, the audience would have been able to view the transformation to complement the textual one. This could have been scaled down to individual moments as well.
The stand out performance came from George Banders as Bentley. In a nut shell, Bentley is the typical polite and well-mannered man who realises all too late that nice guys finish last. Banders characterisation was distinctly reminiscent of Michael Crawford in Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em. His performance was perfectly balanced and finely tuned to the nuances of the text. In a role that could have easily been over played less was definitely more. As a physical performer Banders excelled and he was arguably the more credible of stage actors. He was entirely absorbed into the character which enabled him to produce a highly genuine performance. Look out for Banders in the future; he’s a force to be reckoned with. Next to Banders was Niyat Negash M. Berhan as Richard, Bentley’s old school mate, who, like all the others, is eventually carried off by the consumerist wave. Whilst Berhan was entrusted with a slightly trickier role (in that it had less of a payoff), he was natural on stage producing good moments whilst demonstrating an ear for comedic timing.
Unfortunately, the female characters (Diane and Sandy) suffered. It was a likely combination of a written disadvantage and a lack of cohesion in performance. Eloise Winestock played Sandy, Bentley’s dissatisfied blonde bombshell of a wife. Winestock is certainly a very competent performer (one only needs to look to her performances in Sport for Jove productions). Nevertheless, Winestock was somewhat soaked by the comedy and the language and came out looking a bit overwhelmed. This was particularly evident in an earlier scene where she performed a series of incoherent interruptions to demonstrate how bored she was with Bentley. It was a tad blasé. It is possible that Winestock lacked direction: the performer playing Sandy must work hard (straight off the bat) to give credibility to the initial partnership (between her and Bentley). In this production it appeared that they were unmatched from the beginning making it difficult to believe they would have ever got together. This aside however, the role demanded more authority than she was able to give, and it required her to be scarier in command.
Yet despite some challenges, this is still a fine production of what is a little seen Australian play. While Belvoir may be locked into the mindset of trying to make European and American plays Aussie, it is refreshing to see a company that is actually staging the Australian plays that we have. Rouse and his troupe of actors have picked their material well and have extracted the comedy and tragedy without ever tipping into gimmick or excessive sentimentality. It is certainly worth seeing for some of the standout performances. Rooted is playing at the NIDA Parade Studio Theatre until the 9th of November.
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