Thursday, 4 October 2018

The Magnolia Tree - Theatre Review

What: The Magnolia Tree
When: 4 - 6 October 2018
Where: Kingston Arts Centre
Written and directed by: Michael Gray Griffith
Performed by: Ezra Bix, Rohana Hayes, Michelle Robertson and Bruce Whalley
Stage managed by: Jessica McKerlie
Ezra Bix, Rohana Hayes, and Michelle Robertson
The Magnolia Tree is a play which has captured the imagination of Melbourne since it's initial production at La Mama in 2017. Since then it has gone on to be performed at Gasworks and Queanbeyan. In its current iteration it is touring Kingston, Knox and Doncaster throughout October.

In The Magnolia Tree Griffith has teased out a contentious and sensitive issue which all of Generation X are having to face about their Baby Boomer parents. In a society obsessed with life at all costs, the question about the quality of end of life services and options is on the forefront of the personal and political agenda.

Griffith has written a play which places the questions surrounding palliative care and euthenasia in a boxing ring to be battled out by the children of a women who has been experiencing a degenerative illness for 11 years and which now leaves her with no real quality of life now, and no capacity for independent living. It is not stated explicitly in the play the mother has Alzheimers, but Griffith says the idea came to him whilst working in a facility tending people with this condition so...

Vicky (Hayes), one of the daughters, has been providing live in care but the doctor has advised it is now time for the mother to be re-homed into full time nursing care facilities. The other two children, Jack (Bix) and Deborah (Robertson), have come over to discuss the options and come up with a plan.

The topic is a difficult one and the play begins with the unfortunate truth about the state and care levels of our seniors nursing home and the picture is not flattering. The children come to the conclusion that a home with suitable resources and appropriate levels of service would cost around $600,000 and the only way to raise the money would be to sell the family home. This is where the conversation gets difficult.

Everyone has an agenda, difficult personal circumstances (except maybe Jack - we never get to find out much about him...), and a desperate need to move on with their lives. Deborah is a mother herself and is in difficult financial circumstances and Vicky's life revolves around tending her mother.

Griffiths has said he has created Jack's character around the story of the tempting of Jesus in Matthew 4: 1-11 and I think this is where the great flaw in this play sits. Firstly, it makes Jack not really human. It somehow sets him up as being outside the conversation - an observer and perhaps a judge. It unfortunately sets up some uncomfortable gender commentary too but I am going to pass on that conversation for this review. It also means the entire conversation of the play sits around tempting the sisters rather than being a real conversation about the woman in the bedroom and the relationships and history of the family.

I am Gen X so yes, I am having those types of conversations in my own family and I am also hearing them going on around me in work places, at pubs, etc. I hate them because they all seem to come down to who will get what in the will. It may be because my family do and have always lived below the poverty line and so we have little to pass on, but I personally believe this is not anything which should be under consideration by the potential recipients at any point in time and certainly not in the context presented in this play.

One of the features of this work which has received a lot of hype is the audience get to decide the outcome by popular vote (wonderfully set up and adjudicated by Whalley). I actually really loved this feature. It is a little bit of choose your own adventure but it is a good litmus test for the mood of the community. From my understanding the result has generally swayed in favour of euthenasia.

I personally voted that way. Not because of my personal bias in that direction and also not because of anything said by anyone in the play - until just before the voting. It wasn't until those last few moments that we finally heard what the mother had to say about it before she lost her faculties and I voted in accordance with her wishes.

Griffith has spoken about his surprise at the general bias of responses but personally I think he is misreading the 'data'. In my opinion it is not a response to difficult economic times, selfishness, or moral vacuity. Rather, I think it is a sign we are moving towards a climate of respect and a ethical imperative to honour the choices of the person at the core of the debate. Given that almost no moments in The Magnolia Tree even seem to spend much time considering the mother's experiences and interests it is perhaps not surprising the 'data' appears to be pointing elsewhere. It is not a very flattering portrait of Gen X either!

Griffith has directed this production of The Magnolia Tree himself and whilst it looks beautiful it is far too cerebral and lacks theatricality. This is evident in the glossing over of deeply emotional moments such as Vicky's supposed breakdown when Jack reveals he tried to euthenise the mother a year ago. I think an external director would possible have found ways to break down the socratic structure to breath some humanity into the characters.

Hayes played Deborah in the previous versions, but this time she plays Vicky. Hayes has the emotional depth for the role but the blocking is appalling with her spending a lot of time with her back to the audience fiddling with brochures. She does a wonderful job of demonstrating emotion held to the point of breaking, but never let's herself actually break down so it is hard for the audience to see a softer side to her. All we really get to see is the lonely gambling addict she has become.

Robertson has taken over the role of Deborah. She does a fine job of it. The problem for her is the writing. Deborah just comes across as a greedy, opportunistic thief. Bix is intriguing as Jack (and I swear he could be Bruce Willis' brother!) but again, the writing gives him nowhere to go as an actor or as a character.

I love the ideas behind the inception of The Magnolia Tree and these issues are absolutely current and topical and must be examined and discussed. I just think Griffith has missed the true core of the respect for life/quality of life conversation and has been unable to grapple with the true complexities of life long family relationships. It is too 'in their heads' as people like to say.

3 Stars

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