Full marks to 5pound theatre for opening one of the first shows for the Melbourne Fringe Festival. And it does so with voluble vigour, packing significant moments in our history over 2,000 years on a stage hardly larger than a pocket-handkerchief.
Thanked for their presence the audience finds themselves as guests of a speaker: the eponymous Man of the title. Soon, around and about two lecterns, memorable speeches by some of the world’s most prominent leaders begin to roll off his tongue. The Man leaps from Abraham Lincoln to Adolf Hitler, swerves past Martin Luther King to Margaret Thatcher, not before meditating on Winston Churchill, then glides on to Saddam Hussein and Stan Grant, through Susan B Anthony and Julia Gillard and Paul Keating. It is minute after enthralling minute of stirring rhetoric and rousing statements.
And now and then, through the 50-minute, one-person show, like words coming out of the air, a woman’s voice emerges from behind the curtain, interjecting the Man’s breathless recitals, as if speaking our unheard thoughts: she chastises his method of delivering the message, she interrogates the direction of his articulations, she questions his right to those famous articulations.
Despite the occasional whimsy this is a decidedly intense work, paying tribute to — and criticisms of — revolutionary luminaries, on whom time has passed judgement that the theatre-makers are here inquiring. With perceptible reverence and sensitivity the play contemplates the motivations behind the gleam of eloquence and ramifications of persuasive oratory. It dwells upon the way violence can be justified and asks if the desire for power and influence might not have been the common fuel in the infernal belly.
Then the Man, half-way through the staging, transforms into a rogue performer, as he narrates the execution of his plan to take his listeners hostage. He imagines a locked door, police thumping on the other side, tying up a victim. For a moment, with a glass-case on the lectern displaying a gun, its label “Chekhov’s Gun” staring tellingly at us, one is made to feel appropriately uneasy.
Only, nothing happens.
Instead, we move on to hear about racial discrimination and gender inequality, and their injustices and danger. We realise that because of the reformer in Anthony there rose the Iron Lady. And even though he rattles away in German the pronouncements of Hitler with deep, sonorous, guttural vibrations, the Man disdains Hussein’s Arabic. These certainly bear repeating at a time when hard-right groups are again emerging across Europe (and Australia), when women continue to endure lower salaries, and ethnic tensions are high. That the theatre company has chosen Man of the Year rather than Person of the Year to be the name of their drama seems to echo those sentiments.
Tim Wotherspoon’s production handles the weighty considerations in the material with control. The illumination that almost every important event can be linked all the way back to the first ages is astounding. There is nice work from Sharon Davis whose Voice has an effect profound enough on the Man to suggest the world eventually gets what they deserve. Jason Cavanagh is tremendous as the Man; dressed in a tuxedo over pyjama trousers and bedroom slippers he brings conviction and sincerity and spirit to the part, showing how words can charm and frighten and churn hearts and shape stories.
Man of the Year has plenty to say and one hopes it will not be edited away from the dramatic scene, like Chekhov would recommend for the gun that never goes off.