Courtroom drama (and watch out, Warwick!)

March 27, 1991

Nuts

By Tom Topor

Directed by John Rado

With Bede Gwynne, Richard Payten, Geoff Hickey, Nan Vernon, Ted Webster, David Beard, Simon O'Rourke, Paul Van Reyk, Wednesday Kennedy.

New Theatre, Sydney

Reviewed by Rod Webb

By at least one of the standards of psychiatric analysis applied to Claudia Faith Draper in this play, Warwick Fairfax is nuts. As one who sat dumbfounded in the courtroom while the momentary media mogul took up to 10 minutes to answer each question about the celebrated 100-million dollar "performance fee" claimed by Laurie Connell, I'd be tempted to agree with the play's Dr Herbert Rosenthal that a person exhibiting such "psycho-motor retardation" and "suspicious", "aloof" and "often hostile" responses to questions must be a prime candidate for a padded cell.

The comparison doesn't end there. Probably Dr Rosenthal's most devastating judgment on Draper's sanity stems from her refusal to talk to her mother when she was in trouble. And I thought young Warwick was merely the worst living advertisement for Harvard business studies.

But Claudia Faith Draper is on trial and Warwick isn't. Well, the law says she's not really on trial, because unless she challenges an evaluation of her mental condition, she'll be ruled unfit to stand trial on a charge of manslaughter. It's quite simple and rather humane, really: she's a poor lost girl from a good family who's gone astray, and it would be better for all concerned if she got treatment instead of a jail sentence.

Claudia Faith Draper came to the conclusion that sex is mostly commerce and she could charge strangers more. One got too rough and died for his efforts. Draper reckons she's innocent. Society says she had to be mad to be a prostitute, so she's unfit to plead. Besides, she's got to be crazy if she prefers defending the charge to accepting the "unfit" assessment.

Sydney's New Theatre has had its fair share of successes with courtroom dramas — the last was The Death of Phillip Robertson by Australian John Tomlinson — and this has to be reckoned among them. Even this production's director, John Rado, seems to admit, in his program note, that the genre has less that can go wrong, drawn as it is from an area of human endeavour which thrives on the contrivance of (often artificial) protagonists and antagonists. Good courtroom proceedings are either those from which the drama is skilfully distilled or those into which the drama is skilfully injected. It's the dialectic of life in action.

But they mustn't mention the "D" word in the United States of America, so they forsake the classics based on similar themes by the foreigners Ibsen and Brecht and the "unfriendly" Arthur Miller, choosing instead "topical" — if melodramatic and decidedly more laboured — treatments by the likes of Tom Topor.

This isn't to say that a good deal of enthralling drama doesn't shine ipt and this production.

During the course of three acts, a court in the criminal ward at New York City's Bellevue Hospital is to hear Claudia Faith Draper's challenge to the medical view that her mental sickness prevents her from understanding the gravity of the charge against her. Only Draper and her attorney stand between her and an indefinite future of psychiatric incarceration.

Director and cast deliver fine dollops of tension, humour, irony and outrage at the appropriate moments. I have unreserved praise for Wednesday Kennedy's vigorous performance as the defiant Draper, and only a little less for Ted Webster in his pivotal scene as the stepfather in the witness stand. David Beard wasn't, I'm afraid, quite up to the potential offered by the part of Dr Rosenthal: but you can't blame someone too harshly for not being Peter Sellers! Richard Payten was excellent as Draper's attorney when he lapsed out of his tendency to distort his handsome — and entirely more appropriate — appearance with a few exaggerated gestures.

Payten and Kennedy worked really well as the defence team. Their exchanges, ranging from glances to physical assault, were by far the best of the entire show.

A most refreshing touch in the production is its eschewal of any attempt to mimic North American accents. Is it just possible the professional companies will note the commensurate lack of distraction in this approach?

Issue