Sunday, 3 August 1997

Sodomy & Cigarettes by Stephen Sewell, Aug 3, 1997

Sodomy & Cigarettes by Stephen Sewell
 Melbourne University Mudfest until Aug 9, 1997
Reviewed by Kate Herbert around 2 Aug, 1997

There is a fine tradition of political theatre that confronts contemporary social issues and challenges government. Agit-prop (agitational propaganda) was an innovative and colourful form popular in Britain in the 60's and 70's but we have our own heritage.

Sodomy & Cigarettes by Stephen Sewell is such a play and its blatant criticism of the Kennett government is heightened by being performed on a university campus, once the site of heated political activism.

The term 'didactic' is positive in this context.  There are references to Casino, selling off state utilities, building deregulation, police corruption, cuts to welfare, hospitals and education. The problem in this production lies not in its intention but in the execution of its political commentary. Sewell is inclined to over-write and his political diatribes need editing.

The text is a chaotic collection of styles and scenes in a 70's patchwork. Uni revue satirical sketches (Sale of the Sanctuary) are intercut with songs, scenes and a narrative about Jeff Canute (Nick Virginis) our "much-loved' Premier and his counterpart, a corrupt Chicago mayor from 1941.

This is an unflattering portrait so it is no wonder, in these times of arts censorship, that State money was withdrawn from the project.

Evocative and provocative songs in the style of Kurt Weill and the Berliner cabaret of the 20's alternate with some wonderful cameos, a feature being Angus Cerini's John Howard who whimpers, ' I have a mandate." Helen Gagliano has a glorious voice in the chorus.

Director Kim Hanna has done a fine job with this youthful ensemble and Richard Jeziorny's epic design of a fallen temple is a visual treat.

Most scenes are satire but there was one truly theatrical scene. A woman's nightmare of cannibalism is counterpointed against voices from the stock market. This simple theatrical juxtaposition comments on a society that is devouring itself by focussing on market rather than human issues.

 In many other scenes this point is laboured.  The piece is entertaining but often incoherent and unwieldy and some scenes make no sense at all. Robespierre and Saint Juste appear twice but the analogy of the French Revolution becomes clumsy and disconnected. References to philosophers Didera, Heideger and Descartes are used but are obscure.
Sewell questions whether theatre can effect social change but I suspect this play merely reflects it after the fact.


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