Packer and Sons – The elephant in the room. (Theatre Review)
Packer and Sons
16 November – 22 December 2019
Images: Brett Boardman
Please note: This article is written based on witnessing a preview. I did not attend opening night. I did not receive a free ticket from the theatre nor a publicist for this production.
A key moment for writer Tommy Murphy is cemented with a youthful Kerry Packer (John McConville) hanging a giant image of stampeding bull elephants on the wall of his deceased father’s office as he takes it over. The writer’s intent is rightly left to the audience to interpret, but one presumes it’s a symbol of lineage, that being all those enormous male symbols of power in the Packer dynasty. When Kerry finds his place in the family business, we are to presume he becomes the next bull elephant in line, charged with the raising and development of the next bull elephant, until that time when the ‘young bull’ is permitted to take over the family and its fortune.
However, what becomes starkly obvious in watching Belvoir’s Packer and Sons is the conspicuous absence of women. Presumably dismissed because this is a play about The Men and therefore the women are sideline influencers, one can’t shake the idea that they are absent for litigious or other reasons. The most notable absentee is Roslyn Packer, patron of the arts, financial supporter of the Sydney Theatre Company and famous liberal party donor. Also, notably absent is the name Gretel Packer, member of the board of directors and one of the foundation directors of the Sydney Theatre Company. If one wants to genuinely examine the elephant in the room, one has to include the stark and genuinely odd open removal of the Packer women in a play about three generations of the Packer family. Continuing the elephant metaphor, one is forced to contend that they are intentionally absent.
The Sydney Theatre Company has a disproportionately firm grasp on the theatre community in Sydney. Presumed to be the gold standard for theatre in Sydney, actors want to perform there, directors want to add a production to their resume, creatives want experience there and time spent in their gift opens doors all around the world. For a creative in the performing arts in Sydney a hierarchy exists, forging power in both directions. Creatives are plagued by credibility doubts if they haven’t ‘made it’ to the STC and they are forced through certain kinds of birth canals in order to be acceptable to the STC.
Salmon Rushdie suggested that freedom of expression dies without the freedom to offend. He also suggested the best way to not be offended by a book is to shut it. Offence at its most tawdry is based on race or gender or some other characteristic over which we have no control. But offending those who use wealth to exert power over the arts in the name of philanthropy is at the very least something worthy of examination. We should be allowed to do it in this country. We should be allowed to ask questions about power and how it is used in the arts.
Packer and Sons reflect a writer and collective of theatre makers who are very nervous and careful with their subject matter. As we see so regularly in artistic practice in Australia, money and business are treated superficially by writer Tommy Murphy who is far too enamored with those who can collect financial resources. Technological insights that could not possibly have happened sprout from the mouths of Australia’s most wealthy. At one point, Tommy Murphy even supposes Rupert Murdoch saw the smart phone twelve years before Apple produced it’s first in 2007. These points matter because it reveals how Tommy Muphy is held captive by his subject matter. Packers Frank and Kerry are presumed to have earned their wealth by being tougher and somehow, through some ill-defined mystique, better at business. Their power is only ever questioned according to the way it is used. Never why it exists or if it should exist.
The question of whether patrons of the arts should be funding political parties who wish to control the arts by forcing funding into the hands of wealthy individuals should concern us all. To wish to pay less tax, but be pouring money into an elitist brand that forms the basis for judgement on other arts is at best, troubling. It is also a determined reach for power over narrative and the ability to tell our own stories. In this country, for the most part, art has a precarious and subservient relationship with money, desperately needing Government funding or philanthropy to survive. This gives philanthropy a disproportionate power whose exertion is rarely examined.
From my observations, Packer and Sons is a piece of writing and performance that can’t hide these problems. It’s an important piece of theatre – mostly for what it doesn’t say. Tommy Murphy’s grasp for freedom of expression happens when a picture is hung on the wall of the set, and it does establish a tone that is difficult to ignore. I urge everyone to go and see this production, and question my own observations. The greatest gift of Packer and Sons is the elephant in the room, and we should all make an effort to get a closer look.