Review | ‘Savage Grace’ celebrates Steamworks Arts’ 21st birthday

Savage Grace | State Theatre Centre | Until 15 August | ★ ★ ★ ★ 

To mark the 21st anniversary of Steamworks Arts, the company has returned to their very first production. Savage Grace was originally staged in 2001, now after more than two decades the actors and creatives from the production are restaging the work.

Alana Valentine’s play is a powerful work.  It’s the story of Dr. Tex Cladakis (Gibson Nolte), an American HIV specialist, who meets bioethics professor Robert Bavaro (Humphrey Bower).

They clash over ethical issues. How to deal with a pandemic, euthanasia and religious belief are the central points of contention. A restaging of this play is well timed. We have a new pandemic to wrangle, the previous one is still standing in the shadows, euthanasia has been a recent political debate resulting in major legal changes, and an almighty debate over religious freedom is revving up ahead of the next federal election.

Savage Grace premiered at Blue Room Theatre in 2001, and then had a return season at Subiaco Arts Centre with Black Swan Theatre Company in 2002.  It was then presented by Performing Lines at Darlinghurst Theatre in 2003, as part of the Mardi Gras Arts Festival and at La Mama Theatre in 2004  and was recorded for ABC Radio Drama.

Along the way it’s picked up multiple awards for it’s actors, director and playwright. At the start of the millennium I lived overseas, so unlike many of the audience members on opening night, I’ve never seen it before, so can’t make comparisons to it’s previous outings. I did however spend some time mesmerised by a poster for the original production that is hanging in the foyer of the theatre.

In the poster Nolte and Bower both looks so much younger. I suspect returning to this work with two decades added to their ages has only improved it’s authenticity. Seeing two men in their mid forties, or early fifties, battle it out over intellectual discourses – felt very believable.

Both actors bring gravitas to their roles, they’re bold and powerful characters filled with ego, bravado and professional pride, but as the story progresses we see more of their flaws, humanity and contradictions.

While Valentine’s work is dialogue heavy, with most of the action taking place in a single location, the production successfully managed to avoid the scenario of ‘two men shouting at each other’ that often overtakes works of this nature. The delivery was powerful, but nuanced.

The play covers a wide range of topics, at the forefront is discussion about euthanasia, medical ethics, end of life choices and how to tackle a pandemic, but these run parallel to story threads that explore how we communicate with people who see the world in a very different way to ourselves, and asks the question can we also love our polemic opposites.

When Director Sally Richardson appeared on RTRFM’s All Things Queer recently she spoke about how the play has been updated for the new production with two additional scenes, which give another element to audiences to consider.

“Alana has written a new prologue and epilogue, which highlights how a single relationship sometimes over a pathway of time stand out as a moment where everything changes for you.” Richardson said.

The additional scenes allow the story to be grounded in our present day, cleverly bringing the story and the characters into our current lives. Two decades after it was first staged this work still provokes many questions.

The current production has sold-out so you’ll have to fight to get a ticket to see this limited run, but it’s well worth it.

Graeme Watson 

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