Theatre review: The Seed

by **

Dear Dad

The Seed of the title, and of war, is as physiological as it is mental. Kate Mulvany’s play that won Best Independent Production in the 2007 Sydney Theatre Awards is a semi-autobiographical account of her life as the daughter of a Vietnam veteran.

Rose Maloney is clearly Kate — the playwright herself had played the character in earlier productions — on a mission to document the tale of her father, Danny, whose experience as a ten-pound pom is a subject of considerable thespian interest. They travel from their home in Geraldton, Western Australia to Nottingham in England, where Brian, Danny’s father, is about to celebrate his 80th birthday. There, Rose hopes to trace her father’s untold story from his adolescent years.

For the first time, she meets her grandfather, an ardent IRA supporter, who holds his three older sons in high esteem, whilst deeply convinced that his youngest, Danny, had cowardly deserted their common cause in the United Kingdom to the relative sanctuary of Australia.

Written with a sharp ear for dialogue — in spite (or, perhaps, because) of wanton obscenities — the script is a tapestry of metaphors. The opening sequence in which Rose recounts her father as a 10-year-old urchin, his hand impaled on barbed wire as he fled after pilfering from a Protestant, conjures images of Danny’s later life when scarring follows on after an earlier evasion; the pursuing police officer’s malicious glee of decades ago, his dawdle before releasing the boy from his piercing ordeal, is nothing if not reminiscent of the authorities’ present-day indifference to the ex-serviceman.

This is a funny, grim and raucous play which depicts the lifelong consequences endured by returning veterans of the Vietnam war, and by their kin. While Kate shares with the audience a very personal tenderness that exists within her immediate family, she also demonstrates a critical cruelty in the treatment of her characters.

Max Gillies’ Brian rumbles like a diesel clunker who lives in a world of his own imagination. With sheer panache, Gillies delivers on the playwright’s apparent desire to paint an unflattering portrait of the Irish Catholic: delusional, vulgar and crass — even if Brian appears to construe his grand-daughter’s behaviour with incongruous lucidity here.

Danny blends a childlike helplessness with manifestations of post-war trauma and gratuitous explosions of pent-up indignation, which Tony Martin relays with authentic rigour. The character of Rose, too, is somewhat curious as she develops from the sensible documentarian appalled by Brian’s gaucherie, to the amenable grand-daughter complicit in his inexplicable mania, before revealing herself to be the twisted kleptomaniac with a visceral bitterness over her congenital affliction. But, like the others, Sara Gleeson is wonderful in her investment with riveting honesty and discernible warmth.

Some scenes are moving, when they are conveyed by the actors’ expressions rather than by their backs. Nevertheless, Anne-Louise Sarks’ direction appears to be in keeping with Kate’s predilection for analogies. While the lighting offers an unequivocal demarcation between Rose’s recollection and the existing time, the effect is sadly amateurish and disappointing. However, Jethro Woodward’s original composition serves as welcome — if random — reprieve from the family cacophony.

The Seed is presumably an opprobium of war and a lament on its legacy, but the tragic stories of those involved feel strangely eclipsed by unending justification, even exaltation, of past conflicts.

Still, the play’s saving grace, which makes it memorable, lays indubitably in Rose’s childhood memory: her crayfish catching expeditions with her father in the small hours of the morning. From a commentary on the vagaries of life to a portrayal of Danny’s inner demons, the narration that ends with little Rose’s bleeding wound meeting with her father’s barbed wire scar is as heartbreaking as it is exhilarating.

Finally, The Seed has every chance to grow out of its physiological and mental scars, provided it is not washed away by the mindnumbing and fatuous excuses of war.