Thursday, 26 February 2009

Moonlight and Magnolias, MTC Feb 26, 2009 ***

Moonlight and Magnolias 
By Ron Hutchinson, Melbourne Theatre Company
Playhouse, Victorian Arts Centre, Feb 26 to March 28, 2009
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on Feb 26, 2009

Ron Hutchinson’s play, Moonlight and Magnolias, takes its title from a description of the American South in Margaret Mitchell’s gaspingly long and hugely popular 1930’s novel, Gone With The Wind. Although the movie with Vivien Leigh was enormously successful, its inception was fraught with conflict.

Producer David O. Selznick (Patrick Brammall) famously stopped the movie three weeks into shooting, sacked the director and the script then hauled screenwriter, Ben Hecht (Nicholas Hammond), and director, Victor Fleming (Stephen Lovatt), into his office, with only a Remington typewriter and a stash of bananas and peanuts, to rewrite the biggest movie ever made – in five days.

The play peers through an MGM office window to witness the agonising rewrite. The creative chaos, haggling and total exhaustion of the characters, and the unbelievable mess they create, provide plenty of material for verbal and physical comedy. The trio alternately snipe, praise and blame. They attack each other’s credentials, skills, politics, relationships and values as they struggle to overcome fear and panic at their seemingly unachievable task.

Some of the funniest scenes depict Brammall and Lovatt re-enacting the entire movie for Hecht who, to the astonishment of Selznick, has not read the book. Brammall portrays a pert and pouting Scarlett O’Hara while Lovatt recreates hilarious characters including Prissy the black maid, Clark Gable and Leslie Howard. The audience’s recognition of characters and scenes stimulates much laughter.

The actors make the most of Hutchinson’s dialogue that captures the acerbic language and one-line “zingers” that characterised the American movies of the 30’s. Bruce Beresford’s production is tightly directed and set in an opulent Hollywood office (Shaun Gurton).

The acting is accomplished. Brammall embodies the brash rudeness and manic energy of Selznick, Hammond portrays Hecht with a supercilious and cynical humour and Lovatt finds comedy in the macho arrogance of Fleming. Marg Downey provides an hilarious cameo as Selznick’s beleaguered, obliging and endlessly patient secretary, Miss Poppenguhl (OK).

Despite the audience’s obvious enjoyment and the apparent success of the play in other countries, the script repeats itself, returning to the same arguments about Jewish politics in Hollywood, writers being castigated, attacks by Fleming and Hecht on each other’s movies, snipes about Selznick’s marriage and his father -in-law.

There can be no dramatic tension in this play because we know the outcome. The script is completed, the movie is made and it goes down in history. It feels more like a long, comic sketch than a play – but it is funny.

By Kate Herbert

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