Ah…Toby Schmitz. I mean if you were going to stalk someone’s professional career, it’s most likely going to be Toby Schmitz. Just ask the teenage girls and their teacher in the front row on opening night of his new play, he’s hot (property) right now. I even hear they’ve got a Toby Schmitz picture of the week that goes up on the noticeboard outside the Drama rooms so I can only imagine their excitement that the writer was sitting there, in the audience, two rows behind them. OMG, I can hardly breathe. They’ve been Schmitzed.
It was a pleasure to be at the launch of his new play ‘I want to sleep with Tom Stoppard’, directed by Leland Kean, artistic director and CEO of Tamarama Rock Surfers, a company that has been producing top quality independent theatre and new Australian works for years and now has two venues in which to showcase that work, the Old Fitz and here at the Bondi Pavilion. Tamarama Rock Surfers is Schmitz’ company of choice to produce his plays and I’m not surprised- they serve the voice of the writer whilst respecting all those involved in bringing those words to life.
Let me paint the scene of the opening night. Actors, strewn throughout the audience, hugging each other like old friends, catching up on news. Scruffy, confident men and casually glamorous women, all out supporting theatre and its players and then hitting the bar like an aphrodisiac. How many practitioners of their craft would so readily spend a night off to go to watch someone else practice theirs? It’s one of the wonderful things about actors that they are there, armed and ready to cheer (admittedly, sometimes only superficially) colleagues and competition and it’s also one of the reasons you have to excuse them from mostly not being able to openly criticise each other about their work. The dangers of alienating the community you reside in…ooh…actors know conflict and tension and they’re not afraid to use it.
Schmitz’ certainly knows his audience and his community and this play pulls upon the experience of working in it professionally for the last 15 years. ‘I want to sleep with Tom Stoppard’ tells the story of Sarah, a middle-aged actress, and the debris left after she joins her younger actor boyfriend at dinner with his parents. In this unravelling, we are left to ponder the role that theatre plays in society as well as what is theatre and under all of that, what happens if you give up on your dreams and who are you doing that for? There are great moments where the play pokes fun at itself as it criticises kitchen sink dramas but makes no disguise of the fact that it is exactly that. No metaphors here. There are questions in regards to marriage, sex, fidelity, generational differences and the power of imagination with a vege garden… Complex stuff indeed.
The knowing guffaws from his audience were, I imagine, a relief to the writer and director. The tongue-in-cheek commentary of Schmitz’ voice echoes through every character at some stage in the play. It had a touch of Berkoff, a smattering of Williamson, a nerdish reference to a history text book and a dash of Shakespeare, all stirred in the clear and resonating ideas of Schmitz.
There’s a lot to enjoy in this play. The standout star of the play, Caroline Brazier as Sarah, was probably the most impressive part of the production. Her formidable presence, towering confidence and ability to seduce, hunt and destroy all the other characters on stage in the simple glare of an expression or an emasculating and direct line of dialogue was captured in Brazier’s performance. The stage was left with a wake of crying, destroyed men, father and son both rejected in their sexual desires and Sarah’s closing lines, brilliantly and deliciously delivered. This is beautifully contrasted in the maternal role of Jackie, played by Wendy Strehlow. Protector vs Predator. Strehlow’s grip on that zucchini in the end after denying her husband’s advances was a lovely highlight. And the lines in regards to the screaming dildo-wearing Three Sisters…didn’t I see that play? Didn’t we all. Tom Stokes as Luke and Andrew McFarlane as Tom were also great casting choices but this play feels like it is unashamedly all about Sarah and Brazier made sure that we never forgot it, in all the right ways.
Kudos to lighting designer, Luiz Pampolha. His triptych of lighting stakes captured the big tableaux of the play with beautiful comic timing. Jeremy Silver’s sound design accompanied by the original soundtrack of the Ironwood Chamber Orchestra created mood and status in this location and the set design of Natalie and Vanessa Hughes, especially with their ability to project the shadows of conflict at the end, create the rooms of domesticity and privacy, especially in the hobby room of model ships, enhanced Schmitz’ ideas with appropriate realist sophistication.
The more I reflect on this show, the more I like it. It’s very, very good. There are some small flaws in writing that suggest it’s got another re-write in there that will happen in time. The references to the gay son still feel a bit random, dad’s ‘ocker vulgarities’ at the start don’t quite ring true with his verbose deconstruction of the role of theatre in contemporary society and the parents still feel like they are characters painted as a young man would perceive them, especially in their fight at the end.
Kean’s direction strongly respects words and performers. He’s brought the best out of this fine piece of work. Maybe I would make Tom a little less jittery at the start to contrast his discomfort in the second half but these are minor details in what is essentially a great night of entertainment.
Once again, independent theatre is leading the way and this is another play well worth seeing if you can get a ticket. If not, may I suggest a noticeboard with a weekly picture of Toby Schmitz. And a zucchini.