My local bottle department practically gives away the booze. Pop in any afternoon of the week and there’s almost always a tasting going on – handy little refreshments for drivers heading home after a hard day. The specials are stacked up in tempting piles round the shop. When I remark on the week’s ‘buy one, get one free’ deals, the cheery guy behind the counter tells me that there’s a wine mountain ‘out there’ and that “Someone’s got to drink it.”
La Boite’s latest production, and the last for their 2011 season, is Ruben Guthrie by actor, writer, director Brendan Cowell. In the course of the play Ruben’s Czech girlfriend Zoya refers to Australia as a beautiful ‘alcoholic country,’ and Cowell’s play points its considerable critical armoury right at our culture’s denial of the problem. Someone’s got to drink it after all. Whilst the play is pretty gut-wrenching at times, it’s also wickedly funny. Cowell’s shredding of the ethics of the advertising industry is satirical writing at its best. I think it’s his best play yet.
If this corker of a social satire didn’t make you laugh so much you’d weep. Ruben Guthrie is a tragedy about the fall and fall of a talented young man whose health, career and relationships are ruined by booze and drugs. Ruben creates ad campaigns but wants to be taken seriously as a writer – cockiness masks his insecurity. Ruben’s lifestyle where the ‘caine is freely available and grog flows to inspire creativity, celebrate, commiserate and, well, just because you can, see him sucked under. He loses his girlfriend at the start of the play, gets the wake-up call and decides to go on the wagon. Brendan Cowell’s Writer’s Note speaks of the year in which he gave up alcohol not just because he knew he was drinking too much, but to see what it would be like to go without. The experiences he had, the ‘run-ins’ with his ‘baffled’ friends and family who couldn’t understand his denial of ‘the great drink’ were the inspiration for this play.
David Berthold directs a fine, unvarnished production that takes full advantage of the theatre’s architectural space – we’re back in the round, by the way. Mr Berthold admits to admiring the play greatly, and it’s not hard to see why. Mr Cowell’s witty text flows from the compassion at its heart, and its dialogue springs off the page. Berthold has orchestrated its rhythms and thematics with confidence and sensitivity. The play also needs a gutsy company to have it work the way it needs to, and the director has cast it beautifully.
Ruben Guthrie has a dream team ensemble headed by Gyton Grantley who is on stage as Ruben for all but a few seconds of the action. Mr Grantley’s performance is quite superb; it’s assured and powerful, and his Ruben utterly charming and heartbreaking. He is wonderfully supported by Hayden Spencer as Ray his boss, by Caroline Kennison as his mother Susan, and Kathryn Marquet as Virginia his AA sponsor and lover. New faces Lauren Orrel (Zoya) Darren Sabadina (Damian) and John McNeill (Peter) are terrific as fiancée, best mate and father respectively.
Design by Renée Mulder is stripped back and suggestive of a boxing ring right down to its bright blue squares. It’s absolutely perfect for the no-holds-barred slugfest which is the play. Jason Glenwright (lighting) and Guy Webster (sound) complete the design team with meticulously detailed lighting, composition and soundscapes.
The production is wonderfully theatrical and performative; the audience is brought into the action as Ruben addresses us as fellow meeting attendees. The cast sit around the perimeter of the square within the round and watch the action, setting and striking furniture and props, coming and going into the ring for the ’rounds’ that play out over two acts. Yes, there is an interval where you can get a drink. You are invited to bring it back into the theatre if you wish. As an aside, I asked the bar staff whether sales had been up or down during the season. They indicated rather discreetly that they hadn’t really noticed a difference. You could, however, feel a real tension in the room as Ruben agonises over the temptation of drinks forced upon him by friends and family. I don’t mind admitting my own inner voice was screaming, ‘Don’t do it!’
Don’t miss it. This is an excellent realisation of a very good, contemporary, and very Australian play.
Ruben Guthrie by Brendan Cowell plays at The Roundhouse Theatre for a limited season. Catch it between the time you’re reading this and its closing performance on 13th November. Details on the company website.
Images by Al Caeiro
Main Image: Gyton Grantley and Kathryn Marquet