Dangerous masculinities

Issue 

The John Wayne Principle
Written by Tony McNamara
Directed by David Berthold
Sydney Theatre Company, Wharf 1, from July 23
and Melbourne from September 8

Review by Mark Stoyich

There are currently two portrayals of fucked-up masculinity showing in Sydney — one on stage and one on the screen, one very '90s and the other about 40 years old.

The John Wayne Principle is a fast, funny play by Tony McNamara which will enable the yuppie subscribers of the Sydney Theatre Company to laugh heartily at themselves for weeks to come.

A captain of high finance has shot himself and lies comatose in hospital. Robbie, his son, long estranged and now a house-husband in Queensland, is offered a poisoned chalice — if he runs the company for a year, he inherits. But his sister Serena has stayed in the business and tried to become as tough as their father, and expects to take over. Robbie's wife Jenny reluctantly agrees to go back to the rat-race, in return for a chance to set up her own clothing design business.

The various sycophants, bullies and louche characters whose careers have grown in the shade of the great man swing into action to try to bring Robbie down. Robbie is determined to try and hang on, to prove himself and to put some morality back into a highly immoral operation (one of whose activities is a weapons plant in Honduras) without turning into the sort of man his father was.

Does he succeed? Hardly! This is David Williamson on speed, not George Bernard Shaw.

Aiding Robbie — or is he? — is Stafford, who is assigned to assist but also to spy and possibly do him in. This character and his style-obsessed wife, Fiona, are the most splendid comic creations the Australian stage has seen for some time.

Stafford, alternately sycophantic, cunning and charmingly disingenuous, is an Iago for the '90s. The combination on the same stage of this caricatured couple with the relatively naturalistic portrayal of Robbie and Jenny could be a problem, but it works rather like a Picasso painting of heads in different stages of distortion.

Each character at one time or another fights with every other character, but all are linked by their hatred of the absent — literally and metaphorically — father, whose glowing portrait dominates the stage as his memory dominates the characters' behaviour.

A monster of traditional masculine virtue, he's traumatised everyone through bullying manipulation. In the end, brother and sister can solve their problems — and conquer the system he's set up — only by killing him.

This is a fine production with mostly excellent performances, particularly Christopher Stollery and Helen Thompson as the yuppie couple from hell.

As a study of how hard it is to be good in a bad world, The John Wayne Principle is fun, but its characters are right out of the catalogue — Sensitive New Age Guy, Tough Businessman, Boorish Entrepreneur.

For a really complex, subtle portrayal of the devastation the traditional male can cause, go and see the new print of Vertigo. I think this is about some men's inability to love a real woman, as distinct from a transvestite-like artificial creation. But whatever it's about, it's Hitchcock's greatest and possibly strongest film.