Machu Picchu

Theatre, Drama
4 out of 5 stars
Machu Picchu 2016 Sydney Theatre Company and State Theatre Company of South Australia production photo 02 Sydney photographer credit Brett Boardman
Photograph: Brett Boardman Lisa McCune and Darren Gilshenan

Strong performances lift Sue Smith's drama about life, death and the vagaries of love

Close encounters with death clarify the mind wonderfully. Having examined death in proximity – your own or someone else’s – at some point, life’s myriad choices and variables funnel down into a simpler set of binaries: alive or dead; staying or going. And if staying, then why and what for?

This is the perspective Sue Smith wrote Machu Picchu from, having being diagnosed with non-Hodgkin Lymphoma. And it’s the experience that she captures – although her play is not about someone having cancer; it’s about a couple who after 20 or so years of marriage are confronted with a life-threatening accident and a permanently disabling injury.

Gabby and Paul, engineers, are driving home at night after a five day ‘wellness retreat’ (the $5000 a head kind) when their lives and their life together unravels. The rest of the play proposes a way to get through that experience, using the great Incan feat of engineering, Machu Picchu, as a metaphor. It’s also a symbol for the big dreams of youth that give way to the pragmatism of adulthood.

With the exception of some lurid nightmare sequences set inside Paul’s drug-addled head, this play is not particularly inventive or challenging as dramas go – although it does present the audience with one of their greatest possible fears. But Smith, who has a long record of TV and film writing, and a strong (though shorter) run of plays (The Call; Kryptonite), is an adept plotter and has a natural ear for dialogue and feel for relationship dynamics. 

By her own admission, Machu Picchu is a play about middle class experience: having a materially and culturally rich life that is nevertheless capable of great disappointments and angst. Her play is very self-aware, constantly poking fun at that pretension. But it’s straight from the heart, as well – which is underpinned by lived-in, authentic performances by Lisa McCune and Darren Gilshenan in particular.

As with Smith’s previous play Kryptonite, which covered enormous territory (not just the life span of a relationship but also 25 years of Sino-Australian relations, in 90 minutes) in a series of short scenes, director Geordie Brookman’s direction is crucial in engineering efficient and stylish transitions from moment to moment. 

It’s likely that Machu Picchu’s success with audience members will depend on how much they surrender to the conceit at the centre of the show, and relate to it. This is a show that will leave some lukewarm, and others profoundly affected.

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