Review by Thomas Gregory
Even in Australia, our country is often overlooked when it comes to historical fiction. When it is present, it is usually the fictionalization of something famous: Ned Kelly, the Melbourne Cup, Port Arthur. Rarely do we have the inclination to enjoy more universal stories that just happen to use “ordinary” citizens in our own history.
Measure of a Moment is a surprisingly unique play; pure entertainment with our own country as its backdrop. Set in Melbourne and South Australia in the last decade of the nineteenth century, the play follows a young writer who hasn’t lived up to his potential. Uncomfortable with his sexuality, unhappy with his station, and having just discovered the addictive power of gambling, we watch as the man’s life falls apart, and then as he lives with the consequences of his action.
It is hard not to compare Charles Mercovich’s play with Baz Luhrmann’s movie, Moulin Rouge. Both put entertainment and style over historical accuracy, both are bitter-sweet love stories, and both use music to heighten the experience. Louis Ajani’s original compositions are strong enough that I personally had to check that they were not known pieces that I just happened not to be familiar with. Established musical tracks, like Sonic Youth’s cover of “Superstar”, a short instrumental playing of The Beatle’s “Blackbird” and the Irish rebel ballad “Black Velvet Band” remind us of the universality of the story.
Mercovich appears to enjoy dragging us back today in this fashion, adding side conversations about workers’ fears of automation, how colonial settlers viewed nature, and how slavery plays a role in our materialism. The problems of today are the problems of yesterday, still unsolved.
The play has a competent cast in general but is anchored by the incredible Jordan Chodziesner as Connor. Chodziesner has a palpable stage presence, and the subtlety of his performance brings out the subtext of the sometimes melodramatic dialogue brilliantly. The chemistry between him and Asher Griffith-Jones produces a believable relationship that could easily have turned cliched or underplayed in more inexperienced hands. Claire Duncan’s turn as a “modern” young woman both in love and willing to respect herself is a credit to the writing and acting of the character.
Only one character failed to impress. While Liliana Dalton (who wowed audiences earlier this year as Caligula) performed her best with the cloaked being, the character was confusing and possibly even contradictory. While sometimes appearing as a personification of vice or temptation, at others they appeared as very real side characters, despite no indication outside of the script itself. Losing the actor would be a shame, and it was a credit to Dalton that they did not give less than one hundred percent on such a problematically written role. I just can’t be sure if the play would not have been better off without the character/s.
The cast is rounded out by Carissa McPherson, Darren Mort, Abigail Pettigrew and Luke Toniolo. All play their part admirably, although there is the occasional mumbled line lost in the action.
Someone needs to ensure the big overseas production companies never discover what Riley Tapp and Tim Bonser can do. It is incredibly selfish for me to say that, I agree, but Melbourne theatre cannot afford to lose the genius they bring to the stage in lighting and set design. The folding backdrop captures a general colonial Australia while remaining suitably generalised to fit every setting. The creative use of this backdrop at the end of act one is innovative and effective. And while this backdrop may position the audience in a general time and place, the lighting effective signposts more specific settings, with the experience of a bank being so far flung from that of a beach or small country house.
Amy Oakes and Emily Busch nailed the costume design, while Erica Moffit and Bridie Turner sourced props that were used creatively and efficiently throughout the story-telling.
Measure of a Moment is not a perfect play by any means. Scenes that do not feature Connor often feel tacked on and unnecessary. One in particular, in the backstage dressing room of a performance, felt like a completely unnecessary diversion to explore a theme never again brought up. Sometimes, the music worked to a detriment. “Black Velvet Band” could be seen as a little distracting to anyone who has seen the British show “Peaky Blinders”, while having two separate musical endings to the play made it feel a little drawn out.
Some audience members may criticise the very concept of romanticising our colonial past or find the deification of Marcus Clarke a little on-the-nose. I personally believe there is still a place in our entertainment for self-aware romanticism, and was quite pleased to have an Australian author treated the same way England treats Dickens or America treats Hemingway.
It is relevant to note that Measure of a Moment touches on sensitive issues, such as suicide and child mortality. The creators are quite sensitive in their portrayals, and the respect with which they approach these topics should be commended.
Measure of a Moment is a breath of fresh air. Yes, it takes an overly romantic view of 1890 Australia, avoiding most of the properly unpleasant topics that would turn up in a play focused more on realism than enjoyment. Yes, it even takes minor liberties with the facts of the time. The stylish presentation, almost Shakespearean language, and interest in universal themes, however, make it a compelling and entertaining production that I definitely recommend seeing.