Theatre review: The Gift

by **

Dear Dad

The cover image on a copy of Joanna Murray-Smith’s play script, The Gift, is an ornately-framed ostentatious mirror — something neither featured nor mentioned in the play.

The Gift is a forensic examination of the boundary between obligation and responsibility. The question it asks about how prepared one is willing to pay a debt of gratitude with life-long responsibility will no doubt invite contemplation. But it is the honest revelation of one’s — or in this case, a couple’s — aversion to responsibility that is the most daring.

Sadie and Ed are a middle-aged couple: he is a self-made man who has done good and gone bourgeois; she is his wife, pampered by the trappings of affluence but mildly bored with their vapid relationship. They are celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary at a luxury resort, feeling jaded in each other’s company, when they meet a young couple, themselves commemorating their own 8th anniversary.

Martin is a conceptual artist and Chloe is an arts journalist. Sadie is inspired by Chloe’s boundless admiration for Martin’s talent. And Ed, despite a clear disparity on the knowledge of conceptual art, feels he has found in Martin a soulmate with the same obsession for jazz.

The stylised action is framed and narrated by Sadie, supported at times by Ed. As part of the play’s commentary on mutuality between friends, the younger couple’s high regard for Ed and Sadie’s financial stature is reciprocated with the latters’ desire to be accepted into the others’ high-brow artistic world.

So, when Martin saves Ed at a boating expedition, the wealthy Ed will not rest until Martin has been properly recompensed. They agree to meet one year later. Martin and Chloe are to cast diplomacy aside and tell of The Gift the grateful couple can provide: anything which will mean something to them.

Maria Aitken has assembled a magnificent cast. Elizabeth Debicki’s Chloe makes us confront an inner self many will quietly identify with but never admit to. For it is solipsistic, selfish and immoral. Above all, it is Socially. Very. Ugly. Matt Dyktynski’s Martin, on the other hand, appears rather too unassuming for a rising artist — a criticism perhaps more about the character than his performance. Heather Bolton takes Sadie on a wonderful ride: desperate housewife to mature mind that combines integrity with new depths of perspicacity. Still, it is Richard Piper who steals the show as Ed. We see him segue from being cynical and emotionally obtuse to one transformed by near-death epiphany. When he feels too much is being asked of him, however, he quickly hides his natural instincts behind a guise of sanctimony.

Aitken directs this multi-layered piece with impeccable finesse. Occasionally, knowing glances inserted at crucial times speak more than Murray-Smith’s sensational lines. Richard Robert’s revolving set, too, persuades the audience to perceive each situation from a different angle at every turn. Nevertheless, it is the emergence of the glass box with a little girl within, as the four adults continue to talk on in oblivion, that rounds up the play in spectacular fashion.

In a marvellous display of acerbic wit and sharp eye for social observation, Murray-Smith weaves motifs throughout the play. Just as Ed is pained by his mother’s callous actions, for example, and disgusted by Martin and Chloe’s behaviour, he is reminded of Sadie’s abortion he encouraged.

And just as Martin’s glass box is, as Chloe puts it, ‘a personal inquiry’, Murray-Smith’s script is a social scrutiny — a mirror to our inner most thoughts, never mind it is not a feature in her play, however suitable its elaborate frame.