The Art of War (Stephen Jeffreys): Sydney Theatre Company at the Wharf Theatre

I saw The Art of War back in June, so it has only taken me two months to get around to blogging it!

I was a bit concerned when I heard that it ran for three hours. And when I got the program and saw that most of the actors played multiple parts, and there were sevaral different plot threads and a Chorus, I thought I was in for another pretentious evening, with underwhelming storylines, and characters I didn’t care about. I could not have been more wrong!

The opening (Chorus reciting from Sun Tzu) was rather stagey and pretentious. But once the main part started, I got caught up in it: even though there were multiple completely separate stories (on one hand, the soldier, the journalist and the Iraq war, and on the other, the Australian company trying to break into the Chinese market – with both forming the backdrops to various tales of love and/or obsession) I found them all interesting and fulfilling rather than short and superficial. And I did like the conceit of applying The Art of War to actual war, to corporate infighting, and to personal relationships. Also, I became really interested in what was happening to the characters, and I genuinely cared about them. As the play progressed, I even came to enjoy the Chorus (particularly in moments such as the one in which they stopped reciting to argue amongst themselves about different translations of the text).

The play was specifically written for the STC Actors Company – the playwright claimed he had only seen a photo of them, but he must surely have also been given some background on their performance styles. As usual, amongst the younger members of the cast, the women (Hayley McElhinney and Amber McMahon) were good and the men a little less so. Of course, Pamela Rabe filled the stage with personality – the way her part was written (tough, idealistic, vulnerable, and uncompromising) was one of the strongest signs that the playwright must have had more to go on than just a photograph. As expected, John Gaden turned in solid performances for his roles, as did Peter Carroll. But for me, the real surprise was Colin Moody. I have seem him in other Actors Company productions, and have generally found him quite forgettable – not bad, but not outstandingly good either. But I thought he was fantastic as the career soldier who knows exactly what is going on – and what will happen – and is simply trying to make the best of a bad situation (both professionally and – with less confidence and competence – in his personal life).

This was the first play in ages that I came out of and thought that I would really love to see it again. (I didn’t, unfortunately. But I wish I could have.)

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