Drama Theatre, November 9
Scratch away the laughs from almost any comedy worth seeing more than once and you will find a serious core. In our own era Tom Stoppard has been the master of using a sugar-coating of comedy to make palatable a medicine seething with ideas. In Vere (Faith) John Doyle attempts that Stoppardian approach, bouncing about concepts from the world of physics and astronomy, while wrestling with the confronting issues raised by dementia, and giving us laughs that are, by turn, broad, witty, satirical and farcical.
The other layer in play is faith: a tug of war between the faith of scientists in an unproven principle of physics and the faith of believers in a God and an afterlife.
The conduit for all of the above is primarily one character, Vere (Paul Blackwell), a physics professor who is told at the outset that he has a particularly savage form of dementia that will all but destroy his mind inside a month. The most galling aspect of this for Vere is that in a month he was to jet off to Geneva to witness the Large Hadron Collider prove the existence of the Higgs bosun (Higgs having been a putative colleague of Vere’s in the 1960s).
The play’s first half is set in a university staff-room on the last day before the Christmas break. Banter fills the air as pipe-smoke would once have done, and ideas circulate as easily as do the wine bottle and bawdy chat. Vere, meanwhile, keeps a lid on his crippling news. The portrayal of academe is all a fair stretch from any reality, but the writing gallops along at this point, and is not too far from its Stoppardian ideal.
In the second half Doyle uses the same group of actors to play Vere’s family and their dinner guests, so we see his confusion about who is who with our own eyes, as it were. It is a clever device, but even as Blackwell’s commendable performance – bringing to mind Jim Broadbent’s work in many ways – draws us into his plight, the aspects of the scene that are exterior to his mind drive us away.
The premise here is that Vere’s son and his wife have invited over the parents of the girl their son plans to marry. The girl’s father (Geoff Morrell) turns out to be a man of the cloth, wearing a dog-collar around his neck and his evangelicism on his sleeve, the latter a trait shared by his wife (Rebecca Massey) and daughter (Matilda Bailey). Vere’s son (Yalin Ozucelik) and his wife (Ksenja Logos) share Vere’s atheism and faith in science, while their son (Matthew Gregan) has gone over the dark (religious) side out of love, apparently.
This set-up for a science-versus-religion stoush is all very well, except that the contest is made all the more uneven by the evangelicals being cartoon characters, while the rationalists are, well, rational. Even the bloke with dementia is more sensible than these god-botherers seems, Doyle seems to be saying.
The comedy degenerates to bald caricature, and the drama spirals away from Stoppardian quality at the velocity of a Higgs bosun.
And yet it is not intrinsically a bad play. Doyle wrote it in the wake of caring for his dementia-suffering father, and there is much warmth and pathos at work. But the opportunity was there to wring our hearts, and somehow this slipped through his fingers, just as the comedy is diluted from entertaining to rather asinine as Doyle is thwarted by the scale of his own ambition.
Director Sarah Goodes must take some blame for the performances – especially Bailey’s Holly – in the second half. Given that the play (a co-production between STC and State Theatre Company of South Australia) has already had a three-week run in Adelaide, it seems remarkable that the most thunderous flaws have not been ameliorated.
The design elements (Pip Runciman the set, Renee Mulder the costumes and Nigel Levings the lighting) of simple naturalism more or less work, and Goodes has the play buzzing along in the first half. What a shame, then, that this wonderful character of Vere that Doyle has so compassionately created, and that Blackwell has so charmingly realised, are ultimately squandered.