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Joanna Murray-Smith returns to Melbourne with a provocative new play

Written by
Stephen A Russell
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Tune in to a TV panel debate, pick up a newspaper or scan Twitter and it can sometimes feel like the entire world is screaming bloody murder at each other from opposite and apparently irreconcilable poles. But what happens when that furious divide draws a battleline right through the middle of your home?

That’s the premise behind celebrated Australian playwright Joanna Murray-Smith’s Fury. Leftie couple Alice and Patrick think they’ve raised their son Joe to be open-minded and compassionate, to embrace other cultures, but his teacher turns up at their door bearing bad news. Joe and his best friend are down at the police station after having been caught vandalising a mosque.

“I wanted to write about these privileged, educated and quite intellectual characters who think they have the weapons to control their circumstances, but inevitably they don’t,” a cheery Murray-Smith says. “I guess what I’m interested in is what happens when the words can’t do that anymore. What happens when the panic sets in? When they are not in control?”

Originally staged in 2013 at the Sydney Theatre Company during Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton’s tenure, a re-nosed version of the play will make its Victorian premiere at Melbourne’s Red Stitch Actors’ Theatre. Co-directed by Ella Caldwell and Brett Cousins, and starring Danielle Carter as Alice, Joe Petruzzi as Patrick and Sean Rees-Wemyss as Joe, Murray-Smith has sharpened Fury’s focus on the latter and the troubled young lad following an intensive workshop at the New York Stage and Film Powerhouse Festival.

Joe lobbing a brick through the mosque window is Fury’s inciting hand grenade. “That one act creates these ripples through three communities,” Murray-Smith says. “The community of the families, the community of the school and also, by implication, the Muslim community. So one small act reverberates outwards and collects this kind of momentum behind it.”

The idea of perfect little worlds exploding isn’t uncommon in Murray-Smith’s work, nor is her knack for probing characters through snappy, comedic-infused dialogue. She says these traits have a lot to do with her own upbringing in a house constantly buzzing with great thinkers.  

Joanna Murray-Smith
Photograph: Grant Sparkes-Carroll

“I used to think all my ideas just came from out of space, and then I began to realise I can plot them in the narratives of my own life,” Murray-Smith says with a chuckle. “The house was full of people who were brilliant at articulating, who argued until the early hours, and yet their private lives were, in many cases, a complete mess.”

Interrogating inflexible positions is in her DNA. “I’ve always been interested in the inadequacies of hard line ideology, whether it’s the left or the right, and I guess I’m old enough now to see the roots of things in autobiography.”

Her parents were card-carrying members of the Communist party until Russia invaded Hungary in 1956. “Their whole life was dominated by it, and then, in ’56, they began to see the error of their ways, or at least how blinkered they had been. And though they remained on the left – they were always Labor voters – they were extremely sceptical and cynical about people who put ideology ahead of humanity.”

That’s pretty much the job of a playwright, Murray-Smith argues. “I have to satisfy constant querying voices inside my head, saying, ‘yes, but what are the limitations of this that I can question?’”

Fury picks at the left-right scab that only seems to be getting more and more inflamed in Australia, and also at the tendency of parents to assume children will don their well-worn ideological suits. “It’s about how invested we are in our children, how independent they are from us, and how do we deal with that,” she says. “To me, it’s fascinating to write characters who think they have everything all sewn up. The tragedy of their lives is that they begin, often later in life, to see that a lot of the qualities they saw in themselves were actually camouflage for what they couldn’t handle and what they didn’t see.”

Murray-Smith has enjoyed the luxury of writing about these sorts of flawed characters and seeing them come to life on our main stages for over 30 years, but Australia hasn’t always embraced local talent as much as it perhaps should. She’s cautiously optimistic things are changing for the better.  

“There are a lot of really talented young writers coming up through the ranks and I think they feel much better supported than we did,” she says. “It was a much lonelier landscape, then, and there was less consciousness amongst the big mainstream companies of the importance of telling Australian stories and developing, therefore, Australian writers. That requires a long-term view. You can’t expect a young writer to get it right straight away. What they need is support.”

Fury is at Red Stitch from May 29 to July 1.

Check out our hit-list of the best theatre in Melbourne this month.

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