Joanna Murray-Smith turns her provocative voice to some of the toughest political and religious questions of our times
Joanna Murray-Smith’s play Fury is new to Melbourne, but it actually premiered in Sydney in 2013. Given that it deals in pressing contemporary issues, namely the shocking radicalisation of our youth, it’s almost alarming how relevant it still is; not a single sociological or political question has been satisfactorily answered in the years since the playwright first raised them. For this reason alone, it’s a powerful programming decision. If only it were a better play.
Fury opens with a very telling conversation between husband and wife Patrick (Joe Petruzzi) and Alice (Danielle Carter) – the play’s been significantly reworked since its premiere, which originally opened with a scene between Alice and a young woman named Rebecca, excised completely from this version – about Alice’s upcoming award for her neurosurgery. Patrick’s a successful novelist, but this time in their lives is all about Alice. Until their teenage son Joe (Sean Rees-Wemyss) throws a spanner in the works.
It isn’t a spanner, though. It’s a brick, hurled through the window of the local mosque, along with some hateful graffiti painted on its walls. It’s an action that comes to his parents – proudly, almost smugly, liberal and woke – as a kind of hideous affront to them as much to any ideal of social cohesion. They seek out the parents of Joe’s accomplice Ethan, hoping to find him to blame, but this only complicates matters. Bob (Chris Connelly) and Annie (Shayne Francis) are less liberal, working class and casually xenophobic, but they can’t provide Annie and Patrick with any succour. It’s clear Joe was the true instigator, the "chief to Ethan’s Indian", and the source of the horror lies within Alice’s perfectly calibrated family unit.
There are no Muslim characters in this play, and the working class ones are mere foils for the kind of liberal self-excoriation that is now referred to as virtue signalling, but could just as easily be seen as indulgent and half-arsed. If Murray-Smith were truly interested in what drove young people into extremist ideologies, she’d have cast her net wider, or buried deeper into the malaise at the centre of the dominant culture. As it stands, there’s a glibness to the play. And it does something almost unforgivable: it eventually reduces down to a ‘blame the mother’ scenario, the kind of thing that made Robert Redford’s Ordinary People so insufferable, and even tainted this company’s Taylor Mac play Hir earlier this year.
It’s also an uneven production. Carter is magnificent as Alice, spiky and pleading and utterly convincing; it’s a hard ask, because the character, with her sudden shift into self-obsessed gorgon, is so often unconvincing as written. Petruzzi starts badly – there’s so little chemistry between husband and wife it’s as if he were shoehorned into the production at the last minute – but he grows as the character becomes less accommodating. Rees-Wemyss is better as the troubled boy, but the part is underwritten, a parent’s version of what a teenage boy might be.
Directors Ella Caldwell and Brett Cousins, founding members of the company who’ve directed together before, aren’t particularly comfortable with this material. The performances are uneven, and some of the blocking is uncomfortable or awkward. Chloe Greaves’ set is strong, though; the curtain on wheels that masks the scene changes is reminiscent of the hospital emergency room, as if we were surgeons looking in on specimens we’re about to cut open. The Sweats provide a quietly disturbing sound design in the background.
One of Alice’s pleading aphorisms to her son is that “ideas don’t come from nowhere, from a void”, and this couldn’t be more true of the play as a whole. While the idea of teenage radicalisation buried in the heart of liberalism may seem solely contemporary, it’s not actually that new at all. The late Philip Roth wrote his masterpiece American Pastoral in 1997, and it deals with exactly the same scenario, even if the cultural context has changed. Only it goes way further: the main character has a daughter who sets off a bomb that kills innocent people. It’s interesting that that novel locates the source of the malaise as the relationship between the parents. So does Fury. Roth seems to blame the husband. Murray-Smith clearly lays the blame at the feet of the mother. There’s almost a hint of self-loathing in this, that in the face of intergenerational fury one can only stare bewildered into the void.