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A CurtainUp London Review
Life After George
by Lizzie Loveridge
Hannie Rayson's play is set in the world of an Australian academic, British by origin, a university lecturer who has died in his late fifties. Professor Peter George (Stephen Dillane), Marxist historian is survived by three wives and his son and daughter. The plot darts in and out of scenes from the distant and less distant past to the present but thanks to Blakemore's brilliant direction, it is easy to follow.
Each of the Mrs's George represents an era. The first Mrs George, Beatrix (Cheryl Campbell) is an artist, a stay at home mother of two and roughly pre-feminist. She accompanies her husband to Paris for the 1968 student uprising where she studies art, then to Australia where she leaves him to go to Italy with Raffaello, who becomes her second husband. George is already involved with Lindsay (Joanne Pearce), one of his post doctoral students, a feminist, very bright and ultimately very ambitious. Lindsay becomes his second wife and forges her own academic career to become Dean of the Faculty, where she compromises with big business to forward her own career. George bitterly opposes her sell out to corporate sponsorship of the university and the replacement of traditional courses, like history and Latin and Greek with vocational ones, like tourism and banking. In the late 1990s, George meets Poppy (Anna Wilson-Jones), twenty six years his junior, "an individualist, a post modern cyber chick" whop becomes his third wife. George has died in a plane accident with a mysterious woman on board who is assumed to be the latest in his procession of serial affairs. Poppy burns George's correspondence with many famous people of the 1960s and 70s as an act against Lindsay's hijacking of the funeral arrangements. George's friend Duffy (Richard Hope) serves as George's confidant. George's daughter Ana (Susannah Wise) is a laid back girl, in her twenties, with little or no direction. George's funeral arrangements brings into sharp focus the disparity between his wives.
This play is as much Lindsay Graham's story as George's. Joanne Pearce's performance is powerful and secure as the feminist academic, although I would not have dressed her in an asymmetrical skirted suit, one of those compromises between a short skirt and a long one. Pearce is eloquent and tragic in her final revelatory scene. I liked Cheryl Campbell's performance too, as the first wife, fair minded, maternal and concerned. Poppy is as priggish as only the young can be in her determination for "alternative to the core" George not be remembered as "a man of the seventies". The scenes of open hostility between Poppy and Lindsay are razor sharp as the two women compete for George's memorial. Dillane underplays his "hippier than thou" bearded lecturer with English working class credentials to the point where it is hard to believe he is an important international correspondent, maybe because what we see in the play is his co-responding rather than his academic attainment. George's reported brilliance is undermined by his personal waywardness. He certainly seems to have little by way of charm or charisma or even brilliant intellect. Ana, the confused daughter with the hedgehog haircut has a zany charm and her direct, candid observations often introduce scenes.
Peter J Davison's strange set is ash grey coloured washed bookcases, like Rachel Whiteread's sculptures but in monochrome grey. A window opens to reveal some Paris rooftops and blue sky, a lamp and rail are the pier where George met Poppy fishing. The set accommodates switches from lecture theatre to Tuscan farmhouse to funeral parlour. Director Michael Blakemore copes ably with the many cut scenes, switching time as characters dive back in their memory. Canadian John McGee's poem "Oh I have slipped the surly bonds of earth, and danced the sky on laughter's silvered wing" is spoken by George in a flying scene with a whirling back drop device to simulate the passing skies.
The revelation of Lindsay's personal tragedy brings high drama to the final scenes.. It is Ana who seems to change most in the course of the play. Her final speech about shared humanity shows that she is the true heir of her father's belief in hopefulness and moral courage. All this in the context of universities increasingly having to pay their way in the light of cuts in government funding. It is not a perfect play but it is stimulating and provides plenty of material for ongoing debate and one which has proved successful in Australia.
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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