Venue: King Street Theatre (Newtown NSW), Jul 14 – 28, 2013
Playwright: Barry Lowe
Director: Les Solomon
Actors: Jeff Teale, James Wright
This 20th anniversary production of Relative Merits provides nostalgic value in abundance. The early 90s was a time when the Australian gay movement had reached its peak. The Mardi Gras held stronger socio-political meanings, and Sydney gays were still waiting for Ian Roberts to come out of the closet. Thankfully, some of the play’s content is outdated, such as the depiction of HIV and AIDS, which understandably colours its melancholic conclusion, but most of its themes still ring true and judging from the audience’s response, very much appreciated.
There were two moments of “television news reports” that seem overdone and probably would have been less intrusive as audio-only “radio broadcasts”, but lighting design was thoughtful and sensitive. The show’s staging is interesting, making good use of the awkward space that the theatre provides. The actors are forced to move around, encouraging a more physical performance than the script actually demands. This assists the young actors, and prevents them from being left with too many stagnant monologues. The director Les Solomon is particularly effective in the highly emotive passages (which are many). It is impressive to see the two young men deliver passionate and moving performances, not just drawing the audience into the drama of the work, but also displaying a reminder of the intensity that was fundamental to the political atmosphere of the time.
The actors are quite clearly inexperienced, and they do play things very big and loud, but their performances are compelling and serve the story very well. There is a lot of dignity and purity in their work. Their depth of understanding of the text is admittedly surprising, and it is the very clear and earnest telling of their stories that is the highlight of the show. The intimacy created on stage is undoubtedly moving, and is a real accomplishment with all due credit to both players and their director.