Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Jun 2 – Jul 10, 2022
Playwright: Hannah Moscovitch
Directors: Petra Kalive
Cast: Dan Spielman, Izabella Yena
Images by Jaimi Joy
Jon is a successful writer who refers to himself in the third person. He is also a university lecturer, who has an affair with a student half his age, in Hannah Moscovitch’s Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes. Written in 2020, there was only ever one way this story about sex and power could go. The play may be painfully predictable, but the truth is that we are fortunate to live at a time, when boundaries concerning such matters are clearly demarcated. No trigger warnings are issued, because on this occasion they are never necessary.
There is little about Moscovitch’s work that is dangerous. We have had these discussions many times, and our decisions are firmly drawn, so we feel the play trudging along completely predictably, toward that very foregone conclusion. One would struggle to identify anything further that Moscovitch is able to add, to our now immovable and non-negotiable attitudes with regard sex at our workplaces and public institutions. The subject matter could have provided fertile ground for subversive or provocative humour, but as its title suggests, it is all terribly middle class in attitude.
Petra Kalive’s direction of the piece is arguably too earnest, perhaps too careful, in fear of being misunderstood. Its efforts to reassure us that there is never any intended affront, results in a work of theatre that is overly polite and safe. The tone of the staging is commendable for taking into account more delicate sensibilities that are likely to be present in the audience, but the consequence is a show that does not advance discourse, and one that poses no challenge to our intellect.
Unsurprisingly perhaps, design aspects are all elegantly rendered. Marg Howell’s set and costumes focus our sense of awareness, on just the right strata of people we are looking at. Rachel Burke’s lights offer accurate calibration for every subtle shift in atmosphere. Sound design by Darius Kedros is sensitive and unobtrusive, generously wishing for us to hear little more than the play’s dialogue.
Actor Dan Spielman does marvellously to hold our attention, whilst playing an irredeemably repugnant character. His conviction only makes us more disgusted, which is of course an appropriate response, although there is no denying the tedium of encountering such a one-dimensioned villain. Izabella Yena as Annie, does her best work between the lines, able to convey the complicated amalgamation of emotions, as a young woman who learns over time, that her consent was not consent at all.
One of the main problems with the middle classes, is their unwavering trust of authority. For most of Sexual Misconduct, the audience seems to be positioned so that our concern resides with the choices that Jon makes; it seems to want us to urge him to do better, at every stage of the narrative. The middle classes have such a love of power, as reflected in all their aspirations to attain power, they deny that transparently sinister quality of power that makes it so seductive.
The point of it, is to evade accountability. The point of power, is so you can do whatever you want, especially behind closed doors. To expect people in positions of power to do better is naive, and frankly, in this day and age, stupid. For the audience to wish that Jon discovers his conscience, is to bury our heads in the sand. It is not the individuals in broken systems (or indeed systems designed to fail our democracies), who need to do better. It is the fact that people are granted such power, in that young women like Annie are taught to regard men like Jon with such reverence, that is the problem.