This new work commissioned by Belvoir pitches its camp in four generations of a family, to examine the hopes, dreams and tragedy of middle Australia in 2016
In 1999, Australia’s Human Rights Commissioner at the time, Chris Sidoti, said of the Baby Boomers (of which he was one): “I don’t think there’s been a generation like this that has been so unwilling to pay a fair share of taxation to ensure everyone in the community the support that’s required and the services that are needed. We are now the people who are in positions of influence with the media, government, business and most walks of life, and if we are to say there are people in Australia who aren’t doing well, I think we have to look at ourselves as the people who are responsible for that.”
The Great Fire is about just this: the schism between the Boomer generation and the rest of us living with their legacy. They had free education under Whitlam, low tax, generous welfare. Property was cheaper. Work conditions were fairer – this was before the 1980s saw the dismantling of the trade unions, and the move towards contract work and ‘enterprise bargaining’ (as shown in Stephen Sewell’s The Blind Giant is Dancing, which preceded The Great Fire at Belvoir – deliberately programmed back to back and directed by artistic director Eamon Flack).
Ask anyone under fifty how likely they feel home ownership will be in their lifetime; how secure their job is; what their HECS debt is; how confident they are about the education and health systems… And then there’s the environment, a cause that the Boomers took up in youth but abandoned with prosperity, in favour of consumer lifestyles.
In Kit Brookman’s expansive new play – ten characters and two-and-a-half hours – the tensions between the generations are played out as three generations (and almost four, thanks to heavily pregnant Hannah) of an extended family of theatre-makers coming together for Christmas in the old family home in rural South Australia, in bushfire season.
As the play opens, 30-something actress Lily (Shelly Lauman) and her director husband Michael (Eden Falk) are prepping for the arrival of the rest of the family: Lily’s semi-retired theatre-maker parents Judith (Genevieve Picot) and Patrick (Geoff Morrell), from whom she and Michael rent the house; grandparents Mary and Donald; Lily’s youngest brother Tom (Marcus McKenzie), who is just back in Australia after six months travelling, but back in the house after three years’ absence; and the middle child, Alex (Yalin Ozucelik), arriving from Adelaide with his wife Hannah (Sarah Armanious).
The main drama of the piece revolves around the future of the house: are Judith and Patrick, who live in a freshly renovated pad in Sydney, planning to move back to the property in their retirement? Or will they sell it? Or will Lily and Michael keep living inside her parents’ dream house, paying cheap but still unaffordable rent?
It’s hot, emotions run high – as they do at Christmas, always – and we’re reminded, at intervals, that the fires are getting closer to the property.
If you feel like you’ve seen enough Christmas pressure-cooker dramas about white middle class families, The Great Fire may not be for you. But for children of Boomers, the play’s picture of frustrated, disappointed and depressed youth may resonate. Alex has an amazing rant in the second half of the play – an explosion on behalf of every Boomer child who feels like they were sold a lie about a way of life that simply is not sustainable any more, then got stuck with the cheque.
But two and a half hours of hearing people who own two houses worrying about where they will live, reminiscing about their compromised youthful ideals, and listening to their children complain about frustrated dreams and having no direction, stretches one’s patience a bit.
The first half of the play is particularly tough going: a lot of expository dialogue in which, for example, Lily and Michael – married for years – have ‘casual’ conversations in the kitchen that seem purely designed to give us the background for each character or the context of a particular relationship, or situation. There are long tracts that feel like an opinion piece about the Boomer generation delivered as dialogue, rather than interesting drama.
The arrival of grandparents Mary and Donald is a welcome injection of chaos and levity. Suddenly the buttoned-up atmosphere loosens – people start saying what they think, Tom comes out of his shell… Like Christmas, time and proximity and alcohol eventually work together so that things devolve into fights and honesty.
This is the best of the Great Fire – the messy and emotional and funny parts. Peter Carroll, as dementia-addled grandpa Don, is a guilty pleasure. Brookman’s observation of human behaviour is acute, but his gaze is gentle – everyone is struggling and doing their best, he seems to be saying in previous works Small and Tired, A Rabbit for Kim Jong Il – and now The Great Fire.
Too often, however, this play feels like an opinion piece masquerading as human drama, where actual opinion pieces on the inter-generational battle exist and are more compelling (read Richard Cooke’sThe Boomer Supremacy for a great one). Ironically there’s an interesting idea within the play about what theatre can or should be doing to effect social change (and it’s surely no coincidence that the play’s premise echoes Chekhov’s The Seagull). But this play doesn’t feel like quite the answer.