Review by Carly Fisher
Joanna Murray-Smith is the sort of playwright that when you see that their work has been included in a season, you don’t read the play’s synopsis, you just book. So solid is her track record for writing interesting reflections on deeply human experiences, and particularly of well-rounded female characters, that in many ways, her name on the poster is all that you need to know.
For me (and it would seem a large number of female actors looking for Australian audition monologues), Bombshells, which Murray-Smith published in 2004, was the text that got me on the JMS train. I remember seeing the Ensemble’s 2013 production of this work, starring none other than the exceptional Sharon Millerchip, and vowing not to miss a single opportunity to see another play by this wonderful playwright.
So, when opening night rolled round for Honour - a play that Murray-Smith originally published in 1995 and then made adaptations to in the rehearsal room for this production, presumably to ensure its modernity - back at the Ensemble theatre, of course, I wasn’t going to miss it.
And for me, unfortunately, this is where the similarities between the extraordinary production of Bombshells that I recall from 2013 and the latest Ensemble production Honour draw to a close…the playwright. For as fast-paced and momentous as I remember Bombshells, and also, Songs for Nobodies being, Honour felt predictable, slightly laboured in its points and though still well-written, not the sort of show that will ignite the Murray-Smith spark in new audiences as previous works have done.
I think it is fair at this point to say that this work can be easily divisive and what did not work for me, evidently sat very comfortably with a healthy portion of opening night theatre goers who seemed far more invested in this cautionary tale of lust than I. I hate dwelling on the Ensemble ‘core audience’ vs. the next generation of theatre goers to this great theatre, but I cannot help but wonder if some of the show’s downfalls, for me, come when comparing the production to the exciting, envelope-pushing works happening in Sydney’s other theatres. There is no doubt that 2021 is going down on the record books for great theatre in Sydney after all!
Honour follows a couple that have been together for over 30 years and whose relationship, despite others falling down around them when they hit ‘mid life crisis’ years, begins strong, stable and importantly, still loving. At least that is the premise. When a young, beautiful woman begins to interview the highly successful writer, George (Huw Higginson), she does so firstly by asking about his career, but secondly, by interrogating Honour (Lucy Bell), his wife, as to why she put her career to the side for him. Between interviewer Claudia’s (Ayeesha Ash) beauty, inquisitive mind, downplaying of his wife and her value, and ultimately her positioning of him with ‘hero-like’ status, truly George didn’t stand much of a chance of evading her advances…and his own desire. We watch as the couple’s lives fall apart, see how it impacts their family and particularly, daughter Sophie (Poppy Lynch), and sit questioning as to whether he believes that it really is all worth it.
I’m going to acknowledge that in the 90s when this was written, and as such their 30 year relationship presumably had to stem from the 60s, the character of Claudia was likely a lot more provocative in denouncing Honour for giving up her career, which would have been common place for her time and for pursuing her own career so passionately and vigorously. In 2021, this character, who acts as the catalyst for all the other characters’ unravelling as well, seemed, well, whiney.
Murray-Smith has taken a David Williamson ‘Dead White Males’ approach to the dialogue where each character’s inner thoughts and feelings are expressed through rhetoric that you would likely be hard pressed to find in a modern conversation. In fact, having the two younger characters seem so out of touch with modern vernacular (even amongst my most academia loving friends are you hard pressed to find someone in their 20’s use the term ‘one’ in a sentence…’one must question,’ ‘one challenges whether,’ etc), quickly made them fall into the trap of sounding quite pretentious, but also of sounding like characters with dialogue, rather than fully fledged characters before me.
Avoiding this trap, Lucy Bell is fantastic from start to finish and plays the role of Honour, and the many life stages she must seemingly represent within this 90 minute play, with precision. Her dialogue is never presented as a lecture, her emotional arc ranges appropriately from devotion to bewilderment, to anger, to acceptance and more. Bell crafts every moment she is on stage with restraint, allowing the audience to feel so deeply for her character throughout.
Similarly, Huw Higginson’s skill and experience absolutely come into play as he turns a rather unlikeable George into a character that you cannot simply dismiss from the beginning…you believe that he may be able to make things right, you want to believe in him because Higginson has made you like him, even if you were trying not to.
Kate Champion’s direction perhaps misguided me the most. Desperately wanting to like the show, I kept trying to re-enter the storyline, but the consistent use of blackouts just kept making me drop away again - they were so unnecessary and so distracting to the overall flow of the story. Some simple choreography, having them each move about the apartment, or a lighting change, or even just some nice blue lighting as they once again moved the same 3 furniture pieces around the space…anything, would have made the show more interesting. Champion is far from the only director using this technique at the moment and whilst it certainly has its place, again, amongst the creativity being shown on our stages at the moment, a simple ‘lights on, lights off’ approach per scene is no longer exciting or challenging enough.
What I did appreciate of Champion’s direction was the clever subtlety she expertly weaved through conversations that, in the hand’s of a lesser director, would have been shouty or angsty to the point of overkill. Here, Champion has instead instructed the delivery of these lines to be refined and restrained and allows for the dialogue to roll through instead.
Ultimately, my biggest qualm with the show was just that it was so predictable. At the conclusion of George’s monologue, Claudia enters, and truly, I would be surprised if anyone in the audience at this point had not worked out the story that would unfold for the next 90 minutes. Add to it that the structure of the performance did not change either (see black out comment above), the show quickly felt repetitive as we inched our way closer to the crux of the storyline…that we saw coming from the beginning.
I am a really big lover of the Ensemble theatre - the intimacy of the space, the different programming from the other Sydney theatres and a commitment to playwrights and story lines that they know that their audience will enjoy, the history of the space and the community feeling of creatives within it. I have been going to the Ensemble since I was in early high school and have seen some absolutely stand out pieces there, shows that have stayed with me for years - Bombshells being one of them. This one, didn’t do it for me.
Image Credit: Prudence Upton