17/03/2007 - 21/04/2007
By HANNIE RAYSON
Directed by BRUCE PHILLIPS
Hugely controversial upon its debut in Australia, TWO BROTHERS is a fast paced thriller set in today’s world. The Benedict brothers are on opposite sides of the political divide. James ‘Eggs’ Benedict is the Minister for Security and Prime Minister-in-waiting. Tom Benedict is head of a charitable foundation and a refugee advocate.
The brothers, their wives and sons, find themselves inextricably woven into a political crisis; the horrific drowning of hundreds of Iraqi asylum seekers at sea and the growing realization of a monumental evil behind the tragedy. The arrival of Hazem Al Ayad, the sole survivor of the disaster, provides the catalyst that catapults the brothers’ already tenuous relationship into one of deadly conflict.
Hannie Rayson’s starting point for writing TWO BROTHERS was her deep feeling of shame and frustration at the Australian government’s treatment of refugees, in particular the tragedy of an Indonesian boat, later to be known as the SIEV X (Suspected Illegal Entry Vehicle X), which sank on 19th October 2001 in Australia’s border protection surveillance zone with a death toll of 353. The SIEV X deaths occurred in the midst of an unprecedented anti-refugee scare campaign, orchestrated by John Howard to boost his chances of winning the 2001 federal election. Information about the catastrophe, the highest loss of life in Australian naval history, only began to be publicized during a Senate inquiry called to investigate another government concocted ‘incident’ – the “children overboard” affair. Prime Minister Howard claimed that asylum seekers on a boat bound for Australia had thrown their children overboard in order to force navy ships patrolling the area to rescue them and take them into Australian territory. Damning evidence not only exposed these allegations as total fabrication but other details began to emerge which raised serious questions about what the government did or did not know about SIEV X.
TWO BROTHERS makes no direct references to SIEV X – instead, a fictional incident is created – but it does give flesh and blood form to the sledgehammer approach of the Australian government and the consequences of its anti-refugee policies in the character of James ‘Eggs’ Benedict. In the words of the playwright. “The character of Eggs Benedict shows us who we may become if we allow fear and intolerance to make us indifferent to human suffering. My play is a vision of what the future may be like if people of goodwill – on all sides of politics – do not win the day.”
Hannie Rayson’s daring expose of the appalling human cost of Canberra’s asylum seeker policies caused an absolute furore when TWO BROTHERS first opened at the Melbourne Theatre Company in April 2005. It was seen as a thinly disguised and blatant attack on the government. The right wing media flew at Rayson declaring her work ‘ distorted and exaggerated, a stereotype of the asylum seeker issue.’ Andrew Bolt in the Herald Sun opined, ‘see how cruelly and hysterically Rayson smears our defence personnel ….’ .
Rod Kemp, Arts Minister at the time, made known the displeasure of the government to the general managers of the Melbourne and Sydney Theatre Companies who first staged the play. Reaction to TWO BROTHERS became a red hot story in itself and audiences flocked in their thousands.
James 'Eggs' Benedict - ROGER OAKLEY
Fiona Benedict - JENNIFER LUDLAM
Lachlan Benedict - ARTHUR MEEK
Tom Benedict - NICK BLAKE
Angela Sidoropoulous - SYLVIA RANDS
Harry Benedict - MARTYN WOOD
Hazem Al Ayad - JAMES ASHCROFT
Jamie Savage - CAROL SMITH
Therapist - RACHEL MORE
Set Designed by JOHN HODGKINS
Lighting Design by JENNIFER LAL
Costume Design by GILLIE COXILL
Stage Manager - RACHEL MORE
Technical Operator - GLENN ASHWORTH
Set Construction - JOHN HODGKINS, IAIN COOPER
Publicity - SUZY O'BRIEN
Graphic Design - ROSE MILLER at PARLOUR
Photography - STEPHEN A'COURT
House Manager - SUZANNE BLACKBURN
Front of House - LINDA WILSON
2 hrs 20 mins, one interval
A gripping political thriller
Review by Melody Nixon 10th Apr 2007
THOUGH framed as piece of political theatre about refugees, Two Brothers is less a discussion of refugee issues and more a psychological thriller meets examination of power relations. It is nonetheless a gripping and powerful tale. It goes someway to discuss the public apathy of wealthy nations and succeeds in illuminating the issue of power leading to corruption in today’s liberal ‘democracies’.
The play had a huge effect across the Tasman. Many Australians criticised the play; the former arts minister, Rod Ken, openly expressed his government’s disapproval. The play’s focus on the 2001 Tampa refugee tragedy, in which 356 refugees died in Australian waters, provoked much controversy and debate.
However, Two Brothers’ much touted ‘refugee story’ falls in behind the central theme of corruption and media spin doctoring, aiding the plot in so far as giving the left wing brother – Tom Benedict (Nick Blake) – a ‘cause’ to illuminate his politics. It is this cause which pits him against his right-wing ministerial brother, James ‘Eggs’ Benedict (Roger Oakley), who mixes neo-liberal ideas of personal responsibility with authoritarianism. While Tom argues for ethical compassion, for social security and for government accountability, Eggs counters with claims of personal ‘choice’. It is Eggs who is in Cabinet however, Eggs who has the support of his friends in government and Eggs who believes listening to one’s conscience is a weakness.
Two Brothers also explores themes of prejudice and oppression in contemporary Australasian society. Idle comments of “stupid woman” are bandied left and right in humorous tones, and the marginalised wives of the two brothers are shown as either weak (Jennifer Ludlam as Fiona) or overbearing (Sylvia Rands as Angela). Eggs Benedict tells his son Lachlan (Arthur Meek) that “real men” are strong and invincible; that his brother died of a drug overdose because he ‘wasn’t made of the right stuff.’ Eggs’ also slips a racist joke into scene 3 – and we all laugh. Our complicity means we accept prejudice we would not accept in daily life; but if it isn’t funny, why are we laughing?
This complicity does not shine through the whole play however, and could be strengthened for a non-Australian audience. At times we are too able to distance ourselves from events on stage, to say “I’m glad I’m not like that”. ‘Eggs’ Benedict’s egomaniacal quest for self-glorification quickly becomes something removed and irrelevant to our own lives. It is quite difficult to make links with what we know – liberal Helen – and very difficult with what we don’t – libertarian Howard.
The role of Iraqi refugee Hazem Al Ayad (James Ashcroft) is interesting here, as it could work both for and against complicity. When in the opening scene Eggs Benedict kills Hazem in order to protect himself, it is a distilled metaphor for what the Australian government does on behalf of its voters. While the 356 Tampa refugees were not physically killed by Australians, their complicity with an anti-migrant government resulted in the deaths. However, the focus on Eggs’ psychological state again pulls us away from the horror of the act, highlighting it as a sign of his personal ruthlessness, rather than a problem of which the audience is part.
Circa’s production of Two Brothers has aspects which impede its telling, both in the design and direction of particular scenes. The super quick changes between scenes in the first half jolt us from one setting to another, without sufficient time for emotional impact. The music, which is an Iraqi, Algerian, Egyptian mix, seems a little too exaggeratedly and generically ‘ethnic’ to come across as an expression of cultural sensitivity. The use of pre-recorded laughter and applause means that the scenes of direct address fail to involve the audience, leaving us with a feeling of pointless exclusion.
However, the performances of Roger Oakley, James Ashcroft and Jennifer Ludlam shine through these aspects of misjudged staging. Oakley on the whole is a very convincingly corrupt madman. Ashcroft manages the broken English of Hazem and also injects a bit of cultural sympathy into his part. Jennifer Ludlam infuriates us with her subservience, but leads us to see its cause.
While Sylvia Rands provides a generally gutsy and empathic performance as Tom’s Greek wife Angela Sidoropoulos, in parts she rings a little hollow, particularly in the second half of Act Two. And although his consistently principled stance is believable, Nick Blake seems to struggle with the increasingly conflicted nature of his character. But on the whole, Blake plays Tom’s final resolution with truth and clarity – it is the ethical brother who finally puts beliefs before personal gain.
Two Brothers is perhaps not as hard hitting a show in Wellington as it was in Australia, and this production has room for improvement. Even so, it is well worth a view. Its tension, suspense and clever examination of the seduction of power make it a gripping political thriller, if not a genuine discussion of refugee issues.
Originally published in The Lumière Reader.
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Indictment on a nation
Review by Lynn Freeman 21st Mar 2007
Watching this no-holds barred Australian political thriller/satire makes you wonder why we don’t see this kind of work much here in New Zealand.
Perhaps our politicians are too bland, our burning issues not dramatic enough, or maybe it’s part of a nationwide political apathy. But it’s certainly refreshing to see a playwright fiercely challenge her country’s powerbrokers, media, and the court of public opinion and find them all in contempt.
The Two Brothers of Hannie Rayson’s play are both men who enjoy power. James (Eggs) Benedict is the Minister of Homeland Security and the Prime Minister-in-waiting. He’s openly and brutally ambitious, cunning and charismatic. Tom, meanwhile, is a lawyer and lobbyist for the thousands of refugees trying to get a fair go in Australia. The brothers are matched in stubbornness and ego, but what has been a clash of ideology – Eggs opposed to allowing an influx of migrants and probably with him the majority of Australians, Tom advocating for a truly multi-national Australia – turns into an ethical minefield.
At the heart of the play is the plight of Iraqi asylum seeker Hazem, who survived while his wife and daughters died when the boat sank.
Rayson has made this about more than politics, it also impacts hugely on the men’s families and family loyalties. The men’s sons have their own crosses to bear, especially Lachlan whose loyalty to the navy and to his politician father is stretched to breaking point.
Eggs’ wife Fiona is trapped in a loveless marriage but she sticks with him. Tom’s Greek wife is a strong supporter of his work, however her principles are sorely tested by the end of the play. Eggs’ adviser, a ghastly female version of Tony Blair’s Alistair Campbell, pushes him onwards and upwards, no matter the cost to others.
This play sold out in Australia while attracting some harsh reviews, based as it is on the pre-Tampa sinking of a ship of illegal migrants who the Australian navy refused to save, despite being on the scene. There was no huge public outcry to find out who was to blame, an indictment on the nation as a whole.
Roger Oakley encapsulates Egg’s ruthlessness, arrogance and charisma which make him such a dangerous, and potentially popular Prime Minister. Nick Blake’s Tom is also perfectly pitched, with his arrogance tempered by genuine compassion. Carol Smith is genuinely terrifying as Eggs’ adviser Jamie Savage, and Arthur Meek eased neatly into his role as the conflicted son and dedicated navy recruit, Lachlan. James Aschcroft is heartbreaking as poor Hazem, who just wants to live quietly in Australia but is turned into a political football kicked between the two warring brothers. Sylvia Rand brings an appealing mother earthiness to the role Angela, Tom’s wife. Jennifer Ludlam does a commendable job of the thankless and unsympathetic part of Fiona as does Martyn Wood as Tom and Angela’s unemployed architect son Harry.
The script feels like it’s written for TV with multiple short scenes in different settings, overcome by ingenious set design using multiple blinds complemented by Jennifer Lal’s striking lighting.
The first half drags a little at times, despite Bruce Phillips’ lively direction. Overall though, this is a smashing and compelling play that reminds us why politicians’ absolute power corrupts absolutely.
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Tense, tangled and morally demanding
Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 19th Mar 2007
Slick, highly entertaining political thrillers (a very rare theatrical genre) which are based on displaying a country’s dirty linen are likely to cause offence.
Hannie Rayson’s play about Australia’s appalling treatment of asylum seekers has been described by one Australian columnist as "a smug vomit of hate", which from this side of the Tasman seems a little excessive when her play Two Brothers is as gripping as the BBC’s House of Cards and as tense a family melodrama riddled with moral dilemmas as Arthur Miller’s All My Sons.
It is, as she has written, a play about power and evil. Two brothers, one, James "Eggs" Benedict, a right-wing Minister for Home Security with his eyes on the premiership, the other, Tom, a bleeding-heart liberal lawyer who defends the rights of asylum seekers, come into conflict when on a Christmas Day in the near future a boat full of 300 refugees sinks in international waters and all but one of the refugees are drowned. An Australian naval vessel was nearby but did nothing to rescue the refugees.
It so happens that Lachlan, the son of the Minister, is an officer on board the naval vessel and has phoned his father about what should be done. His advice: take no action. It might have all been written off as a natural disaster had not Hazem Al Ayad, an Iraqi who lost his wife and two children, survived.
Eggs’s marriage is under strain as his wife, Fiona, is still grieving for the drug-related death of their younger son and it is possible that his cousin, Harry, Tom and Angela’s son, could have been involved. Throw into the mix Jamie Savage, Eggs’s scheming spin doctor/ secretary/ lover and her attempts to brand Hazem as a terrorist and to intimidate Harry and thereby Tom, as well as trying to keep Lachlan from incriminating his father and you have a thoroughly juicy melodrama which, however, tends to draw our attention away from the plight of asylum seekers and the inhumane government policies.
What a pleasure it is to see a meaty play that has a large cast with some new faces, lasts more than hour and has been given a good solid production with plenty of attack under Bruce Phillips’s swift direction, aided by John Hodgkins’s setting of bamboo blinds, which copes brilliantly with the numerous short scenes.
Roger Oakley makes a marvelous villain you love to hate, who scorns ‘the compassion industry’ and believes ‘forgiveness is crap’. Like numerous theatrical villains he has most of the best lines and in many ways steals the show.
There is excellent support from Nick Blake as the liberal with a conscience and Jennifer Ludlam as Fiona and Carol Smith as the ruthless spin doctor, and James Ashcroft in the smallish role of Hazem.
Arthur Meek and Martyn Wood also score as the cousins, as do Sylvia Rands as Tom’s Mother Earth wife and Rachel More in the brief role of the therapist attempting to help the lost cause of Eggs and Fiona’s marriage.
I imagine it was the final scene that caused the most problems with those who were offended by the play. And so they should be: the message is very clear but not just for Australians.
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Confronting the virtues and vices of the democratic process
Review by John Smythe 18th Mar 2007
Compared to Australia, New Zealand has greater compassion for refugees and asylum-seekers. We are better exponents of human rights and social justice. Oh, except for Ahmed Zaoui, of course. Not to mention all those questionable criminal convictions, and failures to convict, that continue to haunt our headlines … But they are other stories.
When Hannie Rayson’s Two Brothers, commissioned by the Melbourne Theatre Company, opened two years ago, feature writers (not theatre critics) in the mainstream press vilified it as a smug, hate-filled, conspiracy-theory-driven failure to be the documentary it never claimed to be. Extraordinary vitriol was poured on Rayson. And audiences in Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra flocked to see what the fuss was about, as well as heed the warning and/or salve their collective guilty conscience. [If you go to Alison Croggon’s Theatre Notes, you will be able to access most of that commentary.]
Let us be clear, then, that although Rayson builds her ‘what if’ scenario on the basis of actual events and the public figures involved, the play and its characters are fiction. Two Brothers is a cautionary tale set in a future that is all too foreseeable – or a parallel universe that is all too probable – given the fear-based, anti-Muslim asylum-seeker policies the incumbent Australian government peddled as it (successfully) sought re-election in 2001.
The initial focus was on the notorious Tampa incident (in August 2001 more than 400 asylum seekers were rescued from the sinking boat and arrested. NZ took 187, the rest were incarcerated on Nauru and in Papua New Guinea …). But it was the subsequent Senate Enquiry – where PM John Howard’s vote-winning "children overboard" claims were found to be fabricated – that raised more serious questions about the 19th October 2001 death by drowning of 353 people when an Indonesian boat, known to Australian officials as SIEV X (Suspected Illegal Entry Vehicle X), sank within Australia’s border protection surveillance zone.
Whether the Australian navy was there and could have saved those lives remains open to conjecture. Rayson’s play asserts that such an event could occur if an ambitious government minister, unwilling to face another Tampa-like storm, ordered the navy to turn away from its maritime responsibilities.
As Rayson puts it: "The character of ‘Eggs’ Benedict shows us who we may become if we allow fear and intolerance to make us indifferent to human suffering. My play is a vision of what the future may be like if people of goodwill – on all sides of politics – do not win the day." (This is quoted in Circa’s media release but not in their programme.)
The brothers of the title are James ‘Eggs’ Benedict (Roger Oakley), the Minister for Security, and Tom Benedict (Nick Blake), head of a charitable foundation and a refugee advocate. The dark satirical drama is largely played out amid and between members of the brothers’ families.
In microcosm of what is to follow, the play opens with a man arriving at a beach house to be confronted by a stranger, who accuses the man of killing his family. The man kills the ‘intruder’ in self-defence.
By the time this scene recurs in the linear structure of the narrative, just before interval, we know the ‘intruder’ is Iraqi asylum-seeker Hazem Al Ayad (James Ashcroft), who had left a refugee camp in Australia to meet his family in Indonesia and bring them back. They were on the boat that sank on Christmas Day, he was the only survivor, and Tom has been his advocate. And back then, amid the families’ Christmas festivities at the beach house, ‘Eggs’ took a phone call about the incident.
We also know the Minister’s wife Fiona (Jennifer Ludlam) is playing the dutiful wife in a loveless marriage, their son Marty died of a drug overdose 2 ½ years ago, and their other son Lachlan (Arthur Meek) is in the Royal Australian Navy. He took part in an earlier refugee rescue effort, was on the ship that saw the stricken vessel in question sink, he appealed to his father direct, by phone, and he is now conscience-stricken about it but sworn to silence, of course.
‘Eggs’ and ‘Fi’ have been seeing a therapist (Rachel More) at Fiona’s insistence, and ‘Eggs’ has also being seeing more than he should of his private secretary, Jamie Savage (Carol Smith).
Meanwhile Tom and his Greek wife Angela Sidoropoulos (Sylvia Rands), a high- school teacher and expert in Mediterranean cuisine, are actively involved with the refugee community. Their unemployed architect son Harry (Martyn Wood) is a credit-card delinquent and into drugs, and Tom – who makes chemical-free but undrinkable home brew – is not above blackmailing his brother to get Hazem’s residency through.
The pre-interval climax brings the brothers face-to-face over the question of what has happened to Hazem. The second half tests the man-who-would-be Prime Minister’s resolve in keeping his eye on the main prize by doing whatever it takes to keep his family and his brother’s family from blowing it.
In this ‘Eggs’ is more Iago than Macbeth, although Jamie, as his ‘evil genius’, is every bit as ruthless as Lady M. The difference is they don’t get their come-uppance. While the classics of old reassure us that evil will be punished and good will prevail, Rayson offers us no such sanctuary. Instead we get to contemplate what we might do in the shoes of Lachlan, Fiona, Tom, Angela and Harry.
Two Brothers, then, is a political thriller that weaves a complex web of deceits and conceits, pros and cons, moral dilemmas and human frailties in order dissect the anatomy of ‘evil’ as practiced within the politics of fear, loyalty, ambition, self interest … and apathy. And lest we Kiwis feel too smug in comparing ourselves to the Aussies, there is a moment when Hazem’s affiliations are brought into question, for politically expedient reasons, that confronts us squarely with the Ahmed Zaoui question.
The play’s many scenes in various locations around Melbourne, in Canberra and at the beach house at Warramee, pose a staging challenge that is splendidly met by director Bruce Phillips on John Hodgkins’ verandah-like setting with rattan blinds – that ironically evoke the very cultures ‘White Australia’ would prefer to keep at bay – lit with subtle precision by Jennifer Lal.
All the actors bring human truth to their characters. James Ashcroft ensures we understand Hazem clearly, while Carol Smith allows us no opportunity to shrug off Jamie as a cipher.
Roger Oakley’s ‘Eggs’ is all too credible, even in the moments we will him to soften. Jennifer Ludlam likewise makes Fiona’s choices painfully believable.
Arthur Meek hits his emotional marks at every swell and trough of his voyage to ‘manhood, while Martyn Woods epitomises Harry’s lack of maturity exactly. Nick Blake shares Tom’s dilemmas to sobering effect. Sylvia Rands’ Angela jabs at the status quo with quiet jibes.
And Rachel More – who also stage manages all the cues, blinds and props – completes the cast with her well focused and selfless Therapist.
Yet I come away feeling less engaged than I wanted to be. Given we lack the direct connection Australian audiences must have felt to the political content, I can’t help but wonder if the crucial moments of choice for each of the characters could not pack greater punches for us. And I think that might happen as the cast move on from explaining the story to us (as I sense is their aim), to inhabiting their warts-and-all roles more totally and letting the story speak for itself – which in turn may liberate some of the dry Aussie humour I suspect may lurk within this play.
While Two Brothers was clearly written from a sense of outrage, passion and compassion, its purpose is not served through earnestness. It is written as a thriller and the production needs to find that thrill factor, not least by giving us the thrill of self recognition.
That said – and at the risk of sounding too earnest myself – Circa must be congratulated for bringing us such a politically relevant play at a time when the virtues and vices of the democratic process – and the roles and responsibilities we each have within it – are under such scrutiny world-wide.
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