Sex, seduction and scandal: the perfect ingredients for any coup. Being an election year, it seems fitting that NUTS have included Tony McNamara’s The Great in their 2013 season. I can only imagine that if a federal politician were able to see this production, they would have been inspired to use more interesting (and raunchy) techniques than the old ‘knife in the back’ for their next betrayal.
However, this is definitely not a play about the boring intricacies of Australian politics. Set in Russia during the time of Catherine the Great, it explores her quick and bloody rise to power. Although broadly based on historical facts, the plot is mostly fictional, coherently incorporating comedy and satire. The script itself is separated into two acts, the first exploring how the young and naive Catherine (Bojana Kos), eventually comes to hate and overthrow her slob of a husband Peter (Andrew Eddey) with the help of the intellectual Orlo (Brody Warren). The second act, set several years later, shows how Catherine has adapted as a leader, lover and mother. The Empress is forced to deal with her rather eccentric and annoying children – Natalie (Saskia Roberts) and Didi (Andrew Eddey again) – and the ‘ghost’ of her former lover Hermes (Ben Russell). For the duration of the play Catherine’s trusty maid Marial (Lauren Klein) provides some much-needed comic relief.
I must admit, for the first ten minutes or so I was a bit cynical. I thought that the director Casey Elder had picked The Great just for the opportunity to use a variety of expletives while blatantly staging some soft-core pornography. Once you get used to the many sex scenes and occasional domestic violence, it becomes apparent that there is much more to this production that meets the eye. McNamara’s script delves into some interesting issues of social justice and gender politics. Philosophy majors will also appreciate the many historical references to Voltaire. Kos shined on stage as Catherine and seemed much more in her element as the strong-willed and confident empress than the young, naïve newcomer who is presented in the first couple of scenes. Warren as Orlo cooly provides a stable and consistent grounding in a play of largely unappealing characters. Eddey was remarkably hilarious in his portrayal of Didi and appeared to enjoy this role much more than playing the twit Peter. Accordingly, I feel as if the audience shined to Didi a little more, assisted by Eddey’s impressive comedic timing. Russell, playing Catherine’s lover Hermes (and her daughter’s lover Val in the second act) was suave and collected. Josh Bell had one of the strongest characters in Velomontov, his intimate interactions with Catherine creating one of the best scenes in the play. The seedy Archbishop (Hagen Marsh-Brown) provided some enjoyable light comedy in the opening scenes. It is evident that Elder spent a lot of time with the actors working on characterisation and this clearly paid off.
Ara Steel’s and Chrissy Solazzini’s costume design was definitely a highlight. Ingenious, visually appealing and striking, it is remarkable what they achieved with limited resources. Elder and Britt Nichols’ set design is clever and simple, allowing the actors to decorate the stage with their characterisation. A special mention must go to the chandelier made out of knives, which was an extremely subtle and appropriate addition to the production. The second act opens with a well designed lighting and sound segment. However, it was a shame that similar techniques were not used in the production as a whole, as this seemed a little strange in isolation.
The script was a bit dense at times and some parts of it could have easily been cut. That aside, it is great to see NUTS using their 2013 season to experiment with some quality Australian theatre. Even more refreshing is the fact that the play is not an ‘australiana’ musing on life in the outback or a playwright’s troubles growing up in suburbia. The Great is simply a play about timeless themes which are present in our everyday lives. Love or hate it, you can’t deny that it makes you stop and think. If good theatre is about causing a reaction in the audience, then The Great hit the mark.