The Scoundrel That You Need. Written by Aleksandr Ostrovsky. Directed by James McCaughey. Lighting Design by Chris Sanders. Audio-Visual Design by Brad Picken. Sound Design by David Membery. Cast includes Stephen Costan, Steve Gome, Miria Kostiuk, Evelyn Krape, Olga Makeeva, Grant Mouldey, Ben Pfeiffer and Elizabeth Thomson. Gasworks, Melbourne, until 24 May.
You know the joke: two Englishmen and one women, two Frenchmen and a -woman, and three Russians of the same demographic, land on a desert island. The French group starts a menage-a-trois. The English immediately go each to their corner of the island, because they haven't been formally introduced. The Russian woman falls in love with one of the men, marries the other, and suffers for the rest of her life.
When I first encountered Melbourne theatre in 2005, it was a predictable routine: on the one hand, a small pool of approved classics (in this case, so it seemed, Shakespeare, some Ibsen and some Chekhov, American 20th century, omnipresent Beckett and a dispiriting showcase of local playwrighting talent), produced always in a serious, well-made manner; on the other, a homegrown selection of homegrown indie, vacillating between TV melodrama and plotless innovation (the latter physical more often than dramatic, perhaps to avoid the need to criticize, or even articulate). I blame the tyranny of distance: it simply takes a long time for a new trend to develop, and in 2005 it seemed that nothing new had arrived since, somewhere in the middle of the 20th century, the ideal of the well-made play shipwrecked on the island.
When the Hayloft Project opened their (already legendary) Spring Awakening, at this time of 2007, they started a new trend: brave new re-workings of 19th-century pieces, fearlessly cutting apart, speeding up, stretching and sharpening the text, adding atmosphere, violence, psychoses, or complete deconstruction of sets as they saw fit. 19th century arts were already audacious in their search for new forms in art, life and society, criticizing and proposing and experimenting and showing success and failure, cause and consequence: Hayloft Project simply showed Melbourne the potential to direct the bite towards our times, our spaces. To maltreat the text better (hear my loving tone), in a singularly text-centric culture, they opted for lesser-known, yet excellent, works from the vast pool of the literary history Australia had decided to ignore: the Russians, the Germans.
The Scoundrel That You Need, a bourgeois farce written by pre-Chekhovian Aleksandr Ostrovsky and currently showing at Gasworks, is a child of this trend, and validly so. The theatrical horizons of Melbourne have expanded enormously within a year, and – remember the joke from the start – I would, at any point, much rather watch Russian intrigues on stage than the English waiting to be formally introduced. Forgive the orientalism, but a stageful of Australians hardly creates drama. Introduce some Russian citizens, and they gossip, fight, love, plot and make each other suffer.
My rather reviewy review can be found online at vibewire.net. This was merely an unreviewy rant that didn't make it into the final cut.