The Heretic

The Heretic
By Richard Bean. Melbourne Theatre Company. Director: Matt Scholten. Sumner Theatre, MTC. May 12 – June 23, 2012.

When Doctor Diane Cassell (Noni Hazlehurst) publicly questions fellow academics’ data on climate change she loses her job, and even her life is threatened. Scepticism is a threat to political correctness. Add to that her department head who loves her, an anorexic and disturbed daughter, and a gormless but brilliant super-green student who wants to kill himself rather than pollute the world, and you have the recipe for a highly palatable night’s entertainment.

True, Playwright Richard Bean’s cake sags badly in the second act, and certain ingredients are undercooked (or forgotten altogether) but the jokes all work and the excellent performances add the necessary bite to what should have been a rich, indigestible fruitcake, but instead is a light sponge.

This is one of the strongest casts MTC has assembled in a very long time. Noni Hazlehurst makes a welcome return in the title role, and is rock solid throughout. “I’m a scientist, I don’t believe in anything.” She tells us with absolute conviction. It’s a tough balancing act to combine the assertive and somewhat confrontational academic with the deeply caring mother controlling her daughter in order to save her life. Hazelhurst shines as the no nonsense scientist who thumbs her nose at political correctness. She has a marvellous scene with a toy polar bear whom she claims is her shop steward Maureen: Shades of Play School with an cynical edge. She is less successful in the maternal role, but then she has to fight against the structure and text of a second act that loses its focus for much of the time.

Andrew McFarlane (Professor Kevin Maloney) shines as the nerdy professor, brilliant in his field but out of step with every other aspect of the world. Who knew he had such a gift for physical comedy and could be so endearing? His Maloney is a wonderful creation, trying desperately to belong  – though it owes more than a nod to “Greenwing.” Two MTC neophytes, Shaun Goss (as Ben Schotter) and Anna Samson (as Phoebe) give fine performances and are totally engaging (though Samson does need to watch her diction as some lines were ‘swallowed’).Goss in particular gives us a real three dimensional insight into Ben, the youth who wants to make the world a greener place. His genuine disappointment when Doctor Cassell tells him “To get your carbon footprint down to nothing you would have to kill yourself and NOT be cremated“ is both funny and touching. Lyall Brooks (Geoff Tordoff) is a real stage presence who taps all facets of Tordoff’s (an ex-marine greenie) off-kilter character and Katy Warner acquits herself well in a cameo as the Human Resources Manager.

Despite terrific performances; a great soundscape by Jethro Woodward; and an impressive set by Shaun Gorton; Director Matt Scholten isn’t able to overcome the inadequacies of the script in Act Two. Bean gives us satire in Act One, and humanist domestic drama in Act Two. There’s even a song with a guitar which seems like wasted stage time. Even the plot-point discovery of the “Glaciergate” emails truth, is blithely forgotten in favour of the (inevitable) marriage of the two young misfits, and the Doctor’s rekindling of her affair with her professor. The promise of exploring Cassell’s statement “Green is the perfect religion for the narcissistic age” is not fulfilled and some dangling plot participles are downright confusing. One can’t help feeling that “someone left the cake out in the rain”: Tasty, but not totally satisfying.           

Coral Drouyn                        

Images: Andrew McFarlane (Prof Kevin Maloney) and Noni Hazlehurst (Dr Diane Cassell) & Anna Samson (Phoebe). Photographer: Jeff Busby.          

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