Rooted – Phil Rouse and Don’t Look Away bring Alex Buzo back. (Theatre Review)
Rooted, Alex Buzo’s sixth play, was first produced in 1969. That means (from what I can gather) Buzo had Australians on the stage before, or at least at the same time, as David Williamson did, but somehow, unlike Williamson, Buzo got caught up in Australia’s cultural cringe and he never experienced quite the same level of success on our shores. It’s hard to know why – perhaps we could only stand so much “Aussie” on the stage, or perhaps we were only willing for Australian contemporary playwrites to be “local” rather than “universal”, an idea that Buzo successfully challenges. In Rooted, Buzo takes universal themes, and asks tough philosophical questions with witty, cheerful dialogue, something Australian’s may not have been ready for. If an Aussie was to appear on stage, they had to embody an existing stereotype, or portray an instantly recognisable “Australian way”. In other words, Buzo’s characters embody themes and ideas, rather than cartoonish stereotypes, and it seems Australians weren’t interested in intellectually challenging questions posed by other Australians.
Whatever the reason for his prior obscurity, Don’t Look Away Productions, in declaring itself committed to reviving lost Australian plays, has started with Rooted, and bringing Buzo back to life. Immediately obvious to any viewer, and to director Phil Rouse (as stated in his opening notes) is the timelessness combined with foresight of Buzo’s crisp, witty prose. As Rouse writes:
‘”Saturday night. The living room of BENTLEY and SANDY’s home unit. The Room is white and all the furniture is white… The furniture is very modern.”
So begin the state directions of ROOTED by Alex Buzo. White Room, end of a party, very modern. In 2013 it seems we have finally caught up…’
Buzo’s Rooted is an absurdist / surrealist play that speaks to the universal theme of life as a battle. We meet Bentley , a successful young man who has a good wage, a good wife, a good apartment and a good life, right at the tipping point when life has strangely decided to go bad (the wheels of fate, the plight of Job) and inexplicably Bentley’s life will start to fall apart, with his nearest and dearest acting as conspirators with life’s events, rather than Bentley’s defenders. And yet, in Buzo’s world, there is a yin to the yang, a shadow to the sunlight: everything Bentley looses will be taken up by the equally as inexplicably successful (and perpetually absent) Simmo.
However the joyful twist in Buzo’s work, and part of what makes this age-old questioning so contemporary, is that Bentley is not only powerless to stop this from happening to him, he is powerless to recognise it properly, and to name it. Bentley sprouts perpetual and useless catchphrases and jingoistic slogans of upbeat determination and willpower to suceed; he perpetually seeks to see the good in every moment; he refuses to sink into any sort of emotional negativity over his perverse bad luck, leaving him raw and exposed as life beats him down mercilessly. If it weren’t for the joyful, light wordplay of Buzo’s extraordinary prose, it would be a dark and terrifying tale. But Buzo’s peculiar balance is exhibited all through the work, not just in the obvious battle between Bentley and Simmo, Bentley’s non-life against death (his wife calls him a ghost), but in the darkness of the tale opposed to the lightness of the language. Buzo’s language style is so lyrical, so beautiful, we might have had some glorious phrases injected into our national vernacular, had we embraced him earlier. Clever lines are repeated one after the other, such as:
“Put him in a paddy wagon with all the pro’s and con’s”
“That’s him, over there, in the neutral corner.”
“I’ve always been lucky. Won a chook at a pub once.”
“Think. Do. Be. Act.”
“I gave him five years of my nubile period.”
“Get your foot in the door before you through your weight around.”
“Said my work was symptomatic. Bloody scientists. What were they even doing in an art gallery?”
“I’ve been adopting a meaningful stance.”
Bentley’s friend use round-a-bout clichés and catch phrases to communicate words that mean nothing and merely spare the speaker from having to relate in any actual way with their suffering friend. The circular, strange communication, as it is spoken in place of real relationships, very much foresees social media and sleight of hand relationships so prevalent on the internet. If all the characters in the play were tweeting their lines to each other on mobile phones, and never actually moving about the stage, Buzo’s play would still work, speaking to the talent of the writer and the universality of the themes.
Bentley will find, when life really has left him “rooted” that he has no real friends, no real job and no real money. and yet all these things were authentically gained and honestly maintained. In this way, Rooted is the anti-answer to existential angst and post modern narcissism. We see people adrift on a wave over which they have little control and of which little awareness.
The talented Phil Rouse loves this play, and his respect and joy shine through every one of his characters movements. He remains close to Buzo’s message, giving his cast all the room they need to speak Buzo’s lines in comfort, and with familiarity. Language is key here, as almost all the movement is tied up in the speeches, and takes place off stage. But Rouse wants his audience to feel what he feels for Rooted, and therefore easily communicates the strength of what makes Buzo such a joy to watch. Timothy Potter, Niyat Berhan, Bec Barbera, Eloise Winestock and George Bander as the wide-eyed and confused long-suffering Bentley all bring passion and power to their roles, blossoming under the magic touch of Rouse and Buzo’s partnership.
Rooted is just about over for its short season, but keep close with Don’t Look Away for more fine Australian plays that should not now nor ever have been forgotten.