Izabella Yena, a relatively new-comer in the Melbourne theatre-scene, is fast becoming one of our most promising and precise performers. She has the capacity to suggest a character is carrying emotion, like an overfilled vase, and dare not lose control for a moment; yet, the rising star is able to pierce through darkness to illuminate the depths of human condition. An award-winning actor, Dan Spielman, for his part, is a recognised-face in entertainment, his talent having permeated both television and film for decades. Now, they have been given the fragilities of flawed-roles to play. And, yes, how they occupy them, and my digital screen.
Spielman and Yena portray a “rockstar” professor/author and first-year university pupil at the heart of Sexual Misconduct of the Middle-Classes, a work by Canadian playwright, Hannah Moscovitch. The action finds itself in 2014, three years before the #MeToo movement, that has unleashed a global torrent of allegations and repercussions right up to the present-day. You would not receive any prize to accurately guess at the plot of the story.
Freshly separated from his third wife, Jon laments a life suffering from choices he has had to make in circumstances beyond his control. As though to prove his point, the Creative Writing teacher becomes mesmerised by a young woman, whose red coat captures his attention, and pushes through from the periphery of his vision on to the front-row seat of the room in which he lectures, then into the student accommodation beside his own residence. Resistance driven by sloppy self-control copulates with desire when Annie, as she introduces herself, declares to be an adoring fan of his acclaimed novels.
But develop it does, a sexual relationship between them, and a consensual one, that is clear, with Annie showing every eagerness to please, as she unbuckles his belt, crouching below Jon, her bare-skin beneath his billowing over-sized shirt, afterwards. Lust sobers up into anxiety for the academic, however, that their affair might be discovered, with professional consequences. “We cannot keep meeting in my house,” asserts Jon, in a hotel room, to his imploding paramour, for whom the fog of giddy-infatuation suddenly lifts.
In the hands of director Petra Kalive, this jadedly-lurid cautionary tale — so recycled its carbon footprint must be zero — meant (supposedly) to expose the predatory ways of powerful men, turns into a hearing in which the plaintiff’s voice is all but muted. Spielman’s Jon, through his unremitting soliloquy and rakish charm, coaxes us to empathise with his change of mind, and to contemplate the wisdom of perpetuating the liaison. Then, when she is afforded the time to speak, Annie leaves us to question whether her aggrievement has arisen, really, from feelings after a breakup, or unmatched degree of affection. The final disclosure only makes the production more baffling.
Obviously, the show is held together by the theatre-makers’ choice of two superb casts: Yena — bashful, volatile, vulnerable; Spielman — ruminative, self-loathing, with a sense of entitlement. Their gifted skills, unfortunately, have been squandered into vindicating the very contempt for women the staging presumably seeks to satirise.