Wharf 1, March 8
After the success of Sue Smith’s previous plays Kryptonite in 2014 and Strange Attractor in 2009, her latest drama Machu Picchu was keenly anticipated – particularly with Lisa McCune and Darren Gilshenan in the lead roles.
But despite the best efforts of McCune and Gilshenan, the play itself feels underdeveloped, while the production directed by Geordie Brookman does it no great favours.
Commissioned by Sydney Theatre Company, Machu Picchu is a co-production between STC and the State Theatre Company of South Australia.
In a program note, Smith reveals that she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma a month before Kryptonite went into rehearsals. Machu Picchu was written in response to that experience. The play isn’t about cancer but explores how you deal with a life-threatening or life-changing event, and how that might make you reassess and change attitudes and priorities.
Gabby (McCune) and Paul (Gilshenan) are both successful engineers and appear to live a charmed life, though after 20 years their marriage has gone off the boil. Then, on the way home from attending a disastrous mindfulness retreat, their car crashes into a kangaroo. Gabby escapes unharmed but Paul is left a quadriplegic.
Machu Picchu takes its name from the Inca city: an engineering marvel both admire and have long planned to visit. It represents the missed opportunities and compromises so many of us make in the busy whirl of life today. With its extraordinarily strong foundations, which have ensured its survival, the ancient site is also a resonant image for relationships.
The play shifts back and forth in time, so that we see Gabby and Paul’s relationship before and after the accident. With Paul experiencing hallucinations from the medication, the play also moves between reality and more surreal scenes but this hasn’t been fine-tuned enough in the writing. Brookman’s direction does little to help and the shifts in tone and style feel somewhat clunky.
McCune and Gilshenan both turn in accomplished performances. McCune plumbs Gabby’s guilt, loneliness and frustration beautifully, while Gilshenan brings a dry humour to the role of Paul, convincingly portraying his physical limitations, pain and indignity as well as the emotional turmoil, all of which leave him wondering whether he wants to live.
Though the chemistry between McCune and Gilshenan doesn’t totally fire, the scenes between them are the play’s strongest.
The supporting characters, however, are sketchily drawn. Best friends Marty (Luke Joslin) and Kim (Elena Carapetis) – who have their own flimsy IVF story – come across as crass, insensitive and self-absorbed when visiting Paul in hospital. If there was any sense of subtext, we might feel they are nervous, unsure what to say or perhaps trying to hide their distress. As it is, it’s hard to believe Paul and Gabby could be close friends with such boorish people.
Paul and Gabby’s daughter Lucy (Annabel Matheson), a doctor, is also conveyed in a few broad strokes, while Renato Musolino does what he can with the Lou, the psychologist from the retreat who rather improbably reappears and tries to help Paul find meaning in life.
Jonathon Oxlade’s drab, unattractive set (lit by Nigel Levings) has a curtained hospital bed on one side of the stage and what feels like acres of poorly used, empty space on the other. (It may well sit better in the Dunstan Playhouse when the play goes to Adelaide). The hallucinations (which include Elvis for some reason) aren’t staged with any great imagination and visually it all feels rather bland and clichéd.
Machu Picchu explores interesting themes we can all relate to but it needs further dramaturgical work if it is to draw us in, provoke us and touch us emotionally. At present, it is only part way to becoming a compelling drama.
Machu Picchu plays at Wharf 1, Sydney until April 9. Bookings: 9250 1777. Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre, April 13 – May 1. Bookings: BASS 131 246
A version of this review ran in Daily Telegraph Arts online on March 11