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by Hannie Rayson

Melbourne Theatre Company

Playhouse, Victorian Arts Centre

Wed 5 March 03

Published March 03 -

Review by Carol Middleton

Expectations were high at the opening night of Inheritance at the Playhouse, as this was Hannie Rayson’s first play since Life After George, which was a phenomenal success both in Australia and overseas.

The difference between the two plays is striking. Inheritance is set, not in drawing rooms or studies, but in the great Australian outdoors, with all its humour, its coarseness, its family rivalries and its heartbreak. It depicts the lives of two 80-year-old twins, Dibs and Girlie, as the family starts to disintegrate and the family farm is under threat.

Inheritance is quintessentially Australian, and this quality is likely to give it as much appeal overseas as a play that deals in universalities. Writing about the bush was a new departure for the sophisticated Melburnian, who saw it as a challenge and a chance to learn, to come to grips with another dimension of Australia.

The result is a down-to-earth, funny, shocking and entertaining drama. It was so funny, as much in the delivery as the writing, that many lines were obscured by the hearty laughter from the audience. Hopefully, as the season continues, the actors will adapt to the laughter and wait longer to deliver their next lines.

Rayson has a fine command of the dramatic. Having taken the theme of “Who gets the farm?” as the focus of the play, she then casts her net wide to weave the threads of several other pressing issues into the family saga: native land rights, the stolen generation, globalisation, the cult of Pauline Hanson, and the status of gays and women in the bush. The issues arise organically from the plot and the interaction of the characters, with the dialogue reproducing the colourful Australian vernacular.

Veteran actors Lois Ramsey, Monica Maughan and Ronald Falk anchor the drama with their solid portrayals of Girlie, Dibs and her husband Farley. As Girlie, Ramsay’s deadpan comic delivery is particularly popular with the audience, and provides a nice irony as Girlie’s manipulative character is slowly revealed.

The play is studded with powerful performances. Steve Bisley is perfectly cast as Girlie’s son Lyle, who engages us in his frustration and passion for the land all the time that he is mercilessly cruel and unforgiving. Wayne Blair puts in a natural but passionate performance as the adopted Aboriginal son, Nugget, and has a distinctly defined relationship with each of the characters on stage.

Rhys McConnochie as the gay son from the city, William, is a convincing, rounded character, if a little muted. His voice, in particular, was very light and lacked projection. Julie Nhill as the daughter, also from the city, and her son Felix, played by Gareth Elllis, bring a breath of contemporary Melbourne air into the family. Ellis, in his first role with the MTC, creates a very physical and engaging character as the vegan urban youngster who becomes tragically caught up in the family drama.

Geraldine Turner plays Lyle’s wife Maureen, a Pauline Hanson clone, with a hard-edged righteousness and a panache that had the audience clapping at one of her exits. New recruits to the MTC and recent graduates, Katherine Fyffe and Jody Kennedy, play Lyle and Maureen’s young daughters and the twins’ younger selves and bring a fresh innocence and exuberance into the atmosphere of distrust and manipulation.

The text of the play, which was available for sale, had obviously undergone considerable change in rehearsal. The earthiness of the setting in the Mallee was written into the text, but failed to translate to the stage. Where were the “car bodies and rusty swinging seat with plastic cushions” mentioned in the text? The set design, with its rolling floor sections and sliding wooden walls, was too slick for the bush setting and restricted the furniture to certain areas, so that, from the seats at the side, some of the action was completely screened and the voices hard to hear.

This family saga is already been noticed by the TV networks and will probably be adapted for the small screen. As a stage play, it is economical and dramatic in its delineation of plot and character, a satisfying experience for both actors and audience. Inheritance captures Australian contemporary culture, from the rural perspective, in a defining work of art that will take its place in our theatrical heritage.


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© copyright 2003

Carol Middleton