It's a Family Affair by Aleksandr Ostrovsky. Directed by Daniel Schlusser. Set design by Simon Terrill. The Hoist Theatre Group. North Melbourne Town Hall until June 22, 2002.
According to the Russian censor: "All the characters in the play are first-rate villains. The dialogue is filthy. The entire play is an insult to the Russian merchant class."
It was banned for 13 years. The playwright lost his job and was disinherited after its publication. But, on the bright side, he was adored by the Moscow intelligentsia who demanded that he read his play all over town, and he began dating an actress.
He was more famous in Russia than Gogol and Turgenev, wrote almost fifty original plays. And, chances are, you've never heard of him...
But if it weren't for Aleksandr Nikolayevich Ostrovsky, Eisenstein might never have become a film-maker (he made an early short film for a production of The Wise Man) and Tchaikovsky might've remained a law clerk. (The 24 year-old student's first orchestral score was an overture based on Ostrovsky's The Storm.)
For its first outing, The Hoist Theatre Group has adapted Ostrovsky's second play, It's a Family Affair, We'll Settle It Among Ourselves, and turned it into a hyperactive and wonderfully exaggerated theatrical romp. It begins with a monologue by the daughter of the family, a dreamy fantasy about finding her Prince Charming -- preferably a nobleman -- and snaring him.
She announces, breathlessly, that she is the most beautiful woman in the world and the entire set shivers and sighs. We realise she's asleep and dreaming. And, indeed, she is caught wanking by her mother.
There are many brilliantly vivid scenes and moments of inspired silliness (Marco Chiappi's entrance on his arse, like a wormy dog, will go down in the annals -- ahem! -- of Australian theatre!) but the genius of the opening scene is unsustainable. Ironically, it is the production's determination to do the whole script that bogs it down.
The play's about a merchant (Chiappi) who is tired of having so much money owed to him. His solution? Ripping off the people he owes money to by declaring himself bankrupt. First, though, he puts his house and company in the name of his trusty (and equally corrupt) clerk. He also marries his daughter (Vivienne Walshe) off to the clerk, imagining that this will secure his future.
It's about the snobbishness of the upwardly mobile and the intrigue (and cash) required to cement a place in the upper middle classes.
The patchiness of the writing is not entirely overcome by the innumerable theatrical in-jokes (seagulls are shot between scenes) and all-round playfulness. Or by the incredible imagination shown in the direction (Daniel Schlusser) and set design (Simon Terrill).
But the acting is utterly delightful. Fiona Todd (in harlequin tights) turns into a hand-licking dog, wagging her entire body, by play's end. After far too much David Williamson naturalism, Vivienne Walshe revels in the heightened stuff of this production. All Amanda Douge needs is a pair of dark glasses to complete her transformation into Jacqui Onassis as the matchmaker.
It's a Family Affair is a theatrical feast, but it's one you might need to purge after.
A shorter version of this review was published in the Herald Sun on June 12, 2002.