It was unseasonably hot in Hobart on the night I saw Blue Cow's production of Ruben Guthrie and the theatre didn't cope well with the heat, which added to the intensity of the play I must say, although perhaps not in the way everyone would have liked.
This is a play about the very internal experience of one man: a cocky young advertising guy named, you guessed it, Ruben Guthrie. We see from the opening monologue that Ruben (Scott Farrow) is sorely in need of being taken down a peg or two. He regales an AA meeting with examples of his own genius, talking down to his fellow 12-steppers as only someone who targets demographics for a living can, while refusing the label ‘alcoholic’ himself. His partner and mother look on, concerned, and at first it seems this is going to be a play from the loved ones’ perspective…It’s not.
In an interesting twist on the ‘issue play,’ it may be Ruben who’s the alcoholic but it’s everyone else who’s got the problem. Is the point that having an addiction doesn’t suddenly make you wrong and everyone else right, as conventional wisdom would have it? Oh dear, this is getting into difficult territory…. So let’s move on.
This is a play about the pain of realisation. For Ruben, learning to live without alcohol is like stripping away a key aspect to his identity, and in doing so he must confront the vacuousness of his own existence and, just as terrible, the selfish insensitivity of the people around him.
The intensity of the character’s suffering makes for theatre that seems more like the retelling of some Biblical passion play, at times, than a comedy of manners. There's a fantastic scene where Ruben and his friend Damian (Andrew Casey) relapse into a bender of Roman Empire proportions, rolling around on the floor surrounded by the detritus of their iniquity, in a complete abandonment of reason.
Amidst all this, Ruben emerges as a likeable figure. It’s hard to tell how much of that is down to Farrow's performance, but I suspect a lot. Ruben 'has tickets on himself' and is prone to sudden outbursts of childish rage (an aspect I found particularly interesting, and would have liked the script to further explore), so that he's by no means automatically likeable. Worst-case scenario, this could be a story in which we care about no one.
Farrow's Ruben Guthrie is a little frenetic at first but, as the plays progresses, we realise that he's surprisingly relatable for so brash and 'large' a character. He’s a bit of an arsehole, sure, but you get the feeling that deep down (and sometimes not all that deep down) he knows it and isn’t happy about it. He’s a self-loathing egoist, which is the most fascinating kind. This performer has the depth and intelligence to put that across.
Frankly, this is a very tricky play. The other characters are not so much fully rounded people but voices in Ruben's head: literally at one point. This is someone who sees the people closest to him – his parents, his girlfriend, his best friend – as essentially 'problems.’ Their demands, their need for him to be certain versions of himself, are an imposition. He’d rather they just leave him alone.
But then he wants their help, and they leave him alone too much, or they misunderstand him, or they set back his recovery with unhelpful demands, such as Damian’s repeated and strenuous attempts to get Ruben to have a drink with him.
That Ruben sees other people as a problem is his problem, and perhaps that’s what the play’s about.
It’s Ruben’s relationships with women that I found most intriguing although, in a sense, they’re the least developed aspect of the story. His girlfriend, a Czech model named Zoya (Melanie Irons), leaves him, sick of being treated like part of the furniture. We later see that this was the best thing she could have done, it’s the catalyst for change, and she seems a smart and reasonable person, particularly as played by the capable Irons.
Later, we find out that they got together when she was 16 (she’s now 19, he's 29). He moved her into his apartment and ‘expected things’ of her sexually, while introducing her to important people in return. While Zoya eventually accuses Ruben of having taken her for granted as a partner, and he listens to this accusation and takes it on board, there’s no discussion about the moral implication of his actions. Here’s a wealthy man in his late twenties who has apparently seduced a girl of 16, while she’s living alone in a foreign country, moved her into his apartment and groomed her into a ‘trophy wife.’ Is this reasonable behaviour? This production doesn’t seem to have an opinion either way.
Certainly, a later scene of reunion between Zoya and Ruben is handled with a whimsical tone, such as you might find in a Richard Curtis film. The script does seem to call for this – there’s a cute exchange about romance in the animal kingdom – but a darker undercurrent would have made more sense. Ruben and Zoya’s relationship strikes me as a reflection of his unwillingness to choose a partner he considers his equal, and I don’t see how it suddenly becomes romantic simply because time has passed.
More promising then is his relationship with fellow AA-er Virginia, played by the dynamic Mel King. Plunged into an immediate intimacy by their shared experience of recovery, it seems to be a friendship based on insight. She helps him to be better, they help each other, and if, much to the disgust of Damian, they replace a love of abusing substances with sex, it doesn’t seem to matter.
But there’s something brittle and non-human about Virginia – again springing from the nature of the script itself but not quite solved by this production. She’s a one trick pony, and that obsession – with sobriety – becomes consuming to the point that there doesn’t seem to be much else to her. She showers a lot, which is psychologically a nice touch, and in confronting Zoya in one very dramatic scene of the play, she is jealous and possessive just as you might expect, but does she really suffer? Does she actually care about Ruben? We’re not sure.
Still, that scene – the new lover being confronted by the (much younger) old one – is one of the moments that really impresses here. Firstly, because the script goes for it. It plays the card. Secondly, the performers go for it. Mel King, in underwear and pissed off, is remorseless, while Melanie Irons, hauty and dignified is her opposite, and between them is the shamefaced Ruben, for once not the centre of attention. Perhaps neither woman is a well-rounded character, but in this scene they’re clashing into high theatrical fashion, and it’s entertaining as hell.
Also entertaining is the explosive mix of Ruben and Damian, and an absolute highlight of this production for me was Andrew Casey’s performance as Damian. He’s selfish and louche and relentless and not a friend most people would wish to have but, at the same time, he’s also charming and funny and sings. The two of them singing together, reliving the glory days of a high school band. It's a fine touch, adding texture to the friendship, and Farrow and Casey are ideally teamed. God knows, again, it’s a pity Damian gets short shrift story-wise, but it’s the Ruben Guthrie show, let’s not be under any misapprehension, not the 'Ruben Guthrie and friends' show.
If only Brendan Cowell would see fit to write another play featuring this duo, a bit of a sequel, so we can see how they get on a few years down the track? Hmm, but on second thoughts, perhaps we wouldn’t want to know.
This production is effectively staged against a simple black and white set. Stylistically, it has a bit of a 90s feel that might not ideally evoke the edginess its going for, but that's a small concern. There are some beautifully theatrical crisis points, such as the relapse scene already mentioned and several powerful ‘will he or won’t he’ moments involving alcohol (one was marred on the night I saw the show by an audience member with an odd sense of humour). The final scene, grappling with issues of heredity and what it means to find your own way in life, was well directed but it felt like something we'd already seen by this point in the story. The play, and this production, re-states the question: will he drink or won’t he? The question, for me, should have been: what will he do now?
This is a vibrant and lively piece of theatre, leaving its audience emotionally drained but with plenty to think about. It's about ‘self-help,’ but in the sense that matters not in the daft sense. It's about quieting all the voices competing for attention, and confronting the journey that can only be undertaken alone.
Cowell has written an impressive script that, for all its humorous Seinfeld-esque observations, doesn't undersell its protagonist's struggle. Addiction becomes a metaphor for something larger: our inability to live with ourselves, to trust in our own decisions and our own actions.
Blue Cow Theatre Inc. presents
by Brendan Cowell
Director Robert Jarman
Venue: Theatre Royal Backspace, Hobart
Dates: 22 – 31 March, 2012
Tickets: $40.00 – $22.00
Bookings: 6233 2299