Review: Machu Picchu (Sydney Theatre Company / State Theatre Company Of South Australia)

STCVenue: Wharf 1 Sydney Theatre Company (Walsh Bay NSW), Mar 3 – Apr 9, 2016
Playwright: Sue Smith
Director: Geordie Brookman
Cast: Elena Carapetis, Darren Gilshenan, Luke Joslin, Annabel Matheson, Lisa McCune, Renato Musolino
Image by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
What we understand mid-life crises to be, seems relevant only to the privileged. Gabby and Paul are a middle class couple, both independently established and intelligent, reaching a point in time where their mortality suddenly comes into focus. Machu Picchu is about their reassessment of priorities and values, and although the threat of death is thankfully more than an abstract construct in Sue Smith’s play, the problems they face can often feel hyperbolic. Their struggles are honest, but also indulgent. Where others have had to just keep calm and carry on, Smith’s characters have the luxury of excessive rumination, which in turns disallows much drama or comedy to transpire. There are opportunities for philosophy, but those tend to be subsumed by domestic situations that prevent intriguing ideas from developing with satisfactory depth. Although emotionally distancing, the text has an enjoyable and innovative plot structure that reveals flair in the way its non-chronological timeline is formed. Scenes unfold unpredictably to keep us attentive, with surprising elements appearing at regular intervals for added variety.

We never quite warm to the characters in Machu Picchu. Director Geordie Brookman maintains an understated tone to proceedings, which gives an air of sophistication but also detracts from the story’s gravity. Gabby and Paul’s catastrophic state is comprehensible, but only intellectually so. The fears and trauma that they experience do not connect beyond the cerebral, and the work’s inability to encourage greater empathy gives the impression that its concerns are probably less meaningful than it wishes to be. Dramatic tension never becomes taut enough for us to feel strongly about the characters’ woes, and themes surrounding relationships and ageing, although earnestly portrayed, are not presented with sufficient ingenuity. The only people who are surprised by the effects of time seem to be on stage, and they add little to our own understanding of those ravages.

Lisa McCune’s performance as Gabby is focused and intense. There are many moments of authenticity in her depictions of disappointment, frustration and anguish, and her energetic approach helps sustain interest in her narrative, which can at times be lacklustre. The role of Paul is tackled by Darren Gilshenan who introduces an instinctive levity to the production. Gilshenan is a charming actor with tongue always firmly in cheek, but who proves capable of more serious material with this character’s adversity. It is not an entirely convincing coupling of actors, but the pair finds good rhythm with dialogue and together create imagery evocative of a bourgeois Australian identity that many will find familiar.

Clichés persist for their truth. Life is about the journey, not the destination. The Machu Picchu in Peru represents an ideal that exists in Gabby and Paul’s imagination, a place they have never experienced but that they believe to be special. In our lives, we often long for what we have yet to encounter, thinking that salvation lies therein. It is human to dream, but how much of dreams we allow to interfere with reality, is deeply personal, and determines the shape of each individual’s existence. It is ultimately inconsequential whether the protagonists get themselves to the location of their aspirations. What they are able to create and discover in their time before that fateful day is of great value, if they choose to recognise it as such.

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