Improving, like good wine

Issue 

The Blind Giant is Dancing
By Stephen Sewell
Directed by Neil Armfield
Company B
Belvoir Street Theatre, Sydney, until September 10
Reviewed by Allen Myers

When I first heard that Company B was reviving Stephen Sewell's powerful drama of Australian politics in the 1970s and '80s, my delight was tempered by a twinge of anxiety. Would the story appear dated from the vantage point of the '90s?

I needn't have worried. Blind Giant has aged very well. If anything, the dozen years of historical distance from events it portrays allow the underlying themes to emerge with greater power — in the same way that we get more from King Lear for not being worried about medieval English dynastic battles.

Still, younger audiences may be shocked to learn that there was a not very distant time when issues played a real role in Labor Party factional warfare. And even people who remember events like the bashing of Peter Baldwin should find this play a refreshing reminder of where our current leaders come from. Director Neil Armfield has kept just the right balance between fidelity to historical setting and a focus on more enduring ideas.

The play is the story of Allen Fitzgerald (Hugo Weaving), a socialist who leads a left faction challenging a corrupt right-wing bureaucracy for control of a state Labor Party branch.

Allen's public political battles intersect with the private politics of his relationships with his wife Louise (Catherine McClements), financial journalist Rose Draper (Cate Blanchett), his parents and brother, and his co-workers. In different ways, each relationship circles around the enduring question of politics: the connection between means and ends and, beyond that, how ends themselves are justified.

Sewell is a master of dialogue, and Giant positively sparkles. The words are intelligent, witty and completely true to character. At times, you can feel the audience restraining its laughter or surprise in order not to miss the next line.

The actors rise superbly to the challenge of Sewell's intelligent script. The most focus, deservedly, will be on Hugo Weaving for his completely convincing portrayal of a complex transformation. But if Australian theatre had an annual award for "best supporting actor", Russell Kiefel as the party secretary would certainly be a contender. Kerry Walker and Peter Carroll are memorable as Allen's parents, and Jason Clarke as the younger brother suddenly growing up is an endearing mix of adult seriousness and puppy-like adolescence.

This is a big, powerful, taught three hours of first-rate drama. Don't miss it for anything.