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Review: The Philosophy of Murder at La Mama Courthouse

Review by Thomas Gregory

CW: This play (and review) contain mentions of child sexual abuse.

The Philosophy of Murder, created by Brendan Black and Martin Chellew, is an ambitious and challenging project to present as part of the more generally laid-back MICF. This dark comedy, which features some quite intense material at times, has the potential to make some people a little uncomfortable, as was clearly the intention. The play also has two larger goals: to explore the hypocrisies within our personal moral systems, and to give us a good old-fashioned laugh. It is these goals that I’m afraid will not be reached for many audience members.

As a comedy, this play starts strong. The Medlins’ set design truly feels like an Australian take on those late-nineteenth-century farces we still see pop up occasionally. Vlady T’s take on the underworld enforcer tropes we know so well from shows like Underbelly (and real-life men such as Chopper Read) treads that careful line between menacing and comical. In fact, all three actors in this show are brilliant when given something to do.

The start of the play is simple to follow, as well. An accidental murder, a “snitch”, and a man who believes he has the right to choose who lives and dies. While the actors are sometimes unsure how or why they are to move to parts of the stage, the frenetic energy keeps the audience on its toes, and the jokes flow.

Unfortunately, the show soon unravels. As the enforcer begins to spout the philosophical teachings he “learned in prison”, it is never quite understood if these simple misinterpretations will be criticised by the play or if they are simply offered as ideas to explore. While one character can still receive the occasional laugh by a mispronunciation, they suffer from an inconsistent level of intelligence and vocabulary.

Perhaps the biggest sin of the second act of this play is that it simply stops being a play. For what must have been half an hour, the three men sit and discuss philosophy in generic terms, with examples explained rather than told as stories. There is little movement, which can be fine in other circumstances, but little being said to compel us otherwise. We receive a lot of “Remember that time when you did X” and very little offering of those memories. We are told how characters feel far more often than we see them feel in this part of the play.

By the end of the show, The Philosophy of Murder is back to being a farce, but not in the way I imagine it intended to be. With each attempt to “raise the stakes” of the evils men do, the new “sins” become a little harder to take seriously.

It cannot be said, for example, that Black and Chellew took the addition of child abuse to their play lightly. The first time it is introduced, it is treated with great respect, and this respect they try to offer it each and every time. However, it is the repeated use of this particular topic that turns it farcical, removing all the seriousness that such things are usually approached with. Again, I do not believe it was the intention of the creators to make light of such topics, but by becoming steps in an escalating series of “tales of doing wrong”, they sometimes come across as such.

As it stands, The Philosophy of Murder leaves a slightly bad taste in my mouth but also a slight feeling of hope. Black and Chellew have attempted to explore topics we should be exploring more often and in ways that we have not experienced before. The very concept of an “Australian gangster farce” is brilliant, and to try and use it to explore the essence of morality is worthy of praise. While The Philosophy of Murder has failed in its attempts, I cannot help but be interested in the next project to come from these minds.

Image Supplied


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