Young Jean Lee has been described as an adventurous and experimental playwright. She describes her creative process as one that investigates – with a creative team – a show that she wouldn’t want to make but which she forces herself to make nonetheless.
Lee has said in an interview that she perceives the “traditional, three-act structure as the ‘straight white male’ of theatrical forms”, so she set about exploring “the limits of that form at the same time as its content – to bring the two together in one big nightmare”.
Straight White Men – presented by State Theatre Company and Brisbane’s La Boite Theatre – is set in a relatively affluent house in which Dad (played by Roger Newcombe) has his three mature sons home for Christmas. Essentially, we see the sons re-enact moments of their childhood as they resort to teasing, bullying, wrestling, singing old-school songs and engaging in juvenile japes.
The cast is very good at this and each of the sons represents an element of straight white maleness: Hugh Parker is the sullen, brilliant son Matt, who, in the eyes of his family, has underachieved; Chris Pitman is the successful banker Jake, and Lucas Stibbard is the gay teacher Drew.
Director Nescha Jelk has done all that she could with the cast to enliven this play, which seems to be at odds with itself. Straight White Men does not really break the boundaries of naturalism, and actions such as dad (the patriarch) insisting all the sons dress in colourful pyjamas and sit and eat on the one sofa may create images of power, control and submission, but they also bog down the play in trivia. Throughout, however, the actors invent comical business that is entertaining; there is even a dance-off which gives them an opportunity to display their movement skills.
The play explores maleness and especially straight white male privilege, which, with its dog-eat-dog, last-man-standing mentality, has undoubtedly brought about the ruin of many an individual and society – although many straight white male achievers would argue their actions, ingenuity and entrepreneurship has benefited and progressed society.
It is interesting that this work comes during a federal election, as the major parties scratch their heads wondering why voters are seeking a more representative government that reflects the diversity of society and one less dominated by straight white males; the political arena is often a setting where we see grown men resort to vitriol and adolescent behaviour.
Lee has depicted a family of men in a naturalistic environment. She has established typical sibling rivalries and jealousies, setting up the circumstances for a major conflict in older brother Matt’s sadness and his family’s psychoanalysis of him. Although Straight White Men explores issues of privilege, race and power, it does not hit the audience with any message, so we are left with a feeling of incompleteness, even dissatisfaction, at the play’s resolution. That may have been the aim.
Although I appreciated the cast’s skill and talent, I would have preferred to see a more experimental, ground-breaking form that explored this topic.
Straight White Men may be one of those plays that seep into the subconscious and quietly gnaw at one’s perceptions of the world.
Straight White Men is playing at the Space Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre, until July 23.