The Sugar House – Corruption and Philosophy in Sydney (Theatre Review)


The Sugar House

Belvoir Street Theatre

5 May – 3 June. You can grab your tickets here. 

For June Macreadie (Kris McQuade) a Sydney woman in the 1960’s surviving the lower classes, questions of thought have to do with battles, frontlines and a balance of power between those you protect and the other seeking to advance on what’s designated yours. This powerhouse woman did not give herself time to meditate or time to withdraw. There was only time to intervene, and this time was always limited, unsettled and hurtling toward an unavoidable precipice. Sydney’s potential for change was (is) unlimited, gracelessly rapid and in need of parental guidance. Because it related to the imperative need for action for which time was always running out June Macreadie lived under the thought-language of military categories of advances, retreats, territorial gains, decisive engagements, strategy and tactics.

It could be argued that for June, the origins of the great historical failures of the proletariat lay not in the crude balance of power, but in theoretical deviations. In Alana Valentine’s great play, The Sugar House, this has two-character implications. First, all political failure for June is explained, not in terms of the strength of her adversaries, but always in terms of the weakness of her own project. Second, that that weakness always manifests as an intellectual weakness. Politics is therefore determined as a figure of intellectuality and not as an objective logic of powers. One can only subscribe to that particular rule of biased self-determination. Inside this practice, for June, theoretical deviations in politics always end up being philosophical deviations, forging a life code of survival tactics regardless of the particular battle at had. Whether removing a way-ward son from prison or getting a granddaughter into law school, June Macreadie  theorises categories according to deviations; around economics, evolution of space, volunteering ones labor, humanism, empiricism, dogmatism and so on. These deviations are philosophical and were denounced by the great workers leaders such as Engels and Lenin. While great ideologies are upheld in name, personal philosophy is the intellectual site where the ability to put a name to the successes and failures of revolutionary politics is decided. When June Macreadie and her family show contempt for the corrupt constabulary, it is only the inevitable pressure of their own counter-corruption that resolves a win for the white lower class against them. Working class philosophy then, is the imminent agency that gives a name to the avatars of politics. Inside here, a transition from victim of police corruption to feeding and nurturing a lawyer makes sense.

June’s strategy (and those folks she embodies as Alana Valentines avatar) was always to determine, in each situation the philosophical act whereby a titular space could be characterised for the contemporary crises within revolutionary politics. In depicting June in this fashion, Alana Valentine has honed in on a crucial connection between revolutionary politics and the DNA of a city. For a few years (nineties and early turn of the century) , Australia (including Sydney-siders) laughed at Sydney for a sell out to the developer that stank of cultural disavowal. Instead, Alana Valentine invites the notion that corruption at its core is the antagonist that entices a peculiar-to-Sydney cultural cloaking finally realized in works like The Sugar House and in the iconic images of Max Dupain used by Sarah Goodes and her clever creatives to design the set. Dupain phrased it such: “”I find that my whole life, if it is going to be of any consequence in photography, has to be devoted to that place where I have been born, reared and worked, thought, philosophised and made pictures to the best of my ability. And that’s all I need”.[1]

In this way, as Alana Valentine reveals with great intellectual dexterity, experience and a local ethics combine to offer a doctrine of thought. It is in substance, a matter of replacing a question of the mechanism of the cognitive appropriation of the real object by means of the object knowledge, for the ideological question that guarantees the possibility of knowledge. For June Macreadie then, the perfect manifestation of this point is the empowerment of her granddaughter to lawyer. For Narelle (Sheridan Harbridge) he law means nothing without the history that legitimized the law for her grandmother and with it the philosophy that allows for the cognitive manifestation of working class values in a middle class profession. The question of the possible success of this transmission of values to action is left to those documenting and examining the cultural development of the Pyrmont area. The very same people embodied in their own version of the philosophies that shaped it in the first place.

The Sugar House is another wonderful Belvoir play for 2018. Intelligently written by Alana Valentine and directed with a sophisticated and understated style by Sarah Goodes, The Sugar House invites the examination of Sydney as a cultural setting for us residents who may not see it so easily that way. Michael Hankin’s instantly recognizable set is beautifully lit by Damien Cooper to enhance the true Sydney feel of one of our most recognizable landscape buildings. Superbly performed by the entire cast, but particularly the great Kris McQuade, The Sugar House is an important contribution to the examination of socio cultural development of the transition of the working class to middle class in Sydney’s history as well as a strikingly on point examination of the overlap between political ideology and local daily life.

[1]  Sebastian Smee, “On the beach”, Good Weekend magazine, Sydney Morning Herald, 21 October 2000