Venue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), May 21 – Jun 28, 2015
Playwright: Willy Russell
Director: Mark Kilmurry
Cast: Catherine McGraffin, Mark Kilmurry
Image by Clare Hawley
Willy Russell’s Educating Rita makes a case for aspirations, but not in capitalistic terms or in the form of the all too common middle-class pipe dream. He talks about the importance of culture and choice in all our lives, and suggests that the greatest value of life resides in the active pursuit of self-betterment. The very act of finding greater meanings and knowledge, is the key to enriching one’s existence. The effectiveness of Russell’s narrative relies on the obstructions that we face, especially repressive forces in our surrounds that hold us back and prevalent apathetic attitudes of our communities. Frank is an alcoholic, who is all but resigned from hopes, dreams and ambitions. He has removed the clock from his office wall and hides it along with the secret bottles of booze that occupy the back of bookshelves, so that he can deny the fact that time is passing him by, while he drinks his days away. Through his education of Rita, we observe all that Frank has to offer the world, but he does not acknowledge his own talents, and lets himself flounder and descend towards oblivion.
Direction of the work by Mark Kilmurry is beautifully executed, and very moving. Both characters are engaging and solidly established, so that we feel an instant familiarity that helps us become quickly invested in their stories. Kilmurry has created an environment where both actors collaborate intimately with little ego in the way of storytelling, and what they present often resonates with extraordinary authenticity, and we relate to the play from very personal and deep perspectives. As a performer, Kilmurry is lively and multifarious. His work is vivid, with remarkable clarity in intention and expression, but his character evolution as Frank is insufficiently dramatic in latter scenes for tensions to sustain beyond the show’s very exciting first half. Catherine McGraffin is an effervescent Rita, with the right variety and amount of charisma to let her role translate powerfully and emotionally. Through her heartfelt approach to the material at hand, we are able to examine our own lives, and to think about the parallels between Rita’s experiences and the choices we have made for ourselves. McGraffin’s intuitive and unrestrained style of performance takes hold of our empathy at will, but Rita’s progression later in the piece becomes unnecessarily subdued, resulting in the play seeming to lose steam over time.
Rita’s thirst for knowledge and her eagerness to lift the veil on secrets of the big, wide world is an inspiration, and Frank’s tragedy is a cautionary tale perhaps, of the increasingly parochial ways we live. Interaction with culture requires broad minds, but affluent societies are complacent. We spend time and energy chasing pleasures, but neglect the more challenging and meaningful parts of life. As we make our communities more wealthy and stable, interesting ideas become dangerous and we shut them out. It is difficult to be progressive in 2015 Australia, where fear is becoming a virtue, and we become increasingly protective against enemies real and imagined. The theatre might be a safe and sometimes conservative space where risky thoughts are contained, but at least they (theatre and risky thoughts) are both still thriving, and patrons can always leave with some degree of choice as to the freedoms they will allow themselves.