Vice, Melvyn Morrow’s new play about sexual assault in the private school system, has taken up residence in the small King Street Theatre in Newtown. It’s a play that insists on “scandal” in every line. Not suggests. Insists.
Unfortunately, that’s all it really does. Morrow’s play is dripping with innuendo and loaded imagery, packed with dialogue that is overblown and stilted all at once. Protagonist and headmaster-hopeful Neil (Roger Gimblett) and his school-play director wife Rowena (Margi de Ferranti) refer to each other as George and Martha a few times, but their banter has nothing on Albee’s classic; they opt for over-explanation over nuance or cleverness. This carries through in Elaine Hudson’s direction, where the staging is awkward, with too-complicated blocking and movement to transition between scenes, and clunky technical integration.
Jasper (Benjamin McCann) is an accomplished student athlete who is also in the school play (his role being The Tempest‘s Ariel). As part of a St Marks “tradition”, he receives what Neil calls ‘massage’ ‘relief’ and what Jasper calls something else entirely, mockingly. It’s a rite of passage, and you learn not to complain, he says, or words to that effect, with all his swagger, but there’s something creeping underneath that. Of course.
Rowena is also sexually engaged with the boy, and what is probably supposed to be a tangle of he said/she said, shades of grey, and a lesson in how sexual assault cases are more complicated than they appears because, especially within institutions as old and unmoving as private schools. everything is a power play, the writing isn’t sophisticated enough to really portray this.
What we’re left with is an unsettling, uncomfortable, and dull (all of these at once) play about statutory assault and rape. He’s 18, they all assure us, so it’s not really that bad, right? But of course it’s that bad. Vice attempts to layer that wrongness with the ecosystem of private schools and their traditions, attempts to create a “who’s really at fault” narrative, when Jasper reports anyone and everyone for touching him, even when they haven’t, to try to regain some control in his life. It’s really just a muddled mess, though, of deliberate and accidental political and social incorrectness.
On top of all this there’s Oliva Fox (Jess Loudon) (no really, ‘Olivia Fox’ is her unsubtle name and who for no real reason, as a Type-A corporate professional, has her shirt half-unbuttoned), the ruthless new Head of English who is angling for the Principal position at St Mark’s. She would be the first woman in the school’s history to hold the job, and she’s presented as both Neil’s rival and a representation of newer approaches to education; she talks about “interfacing” with students and throws other buzzwords around liberally.
In the play, of course, any modern thinking is dismissed as ridiculous, because private legacy schools are an old boys’ club, rich with tradition and unwilling to change. There’s plenty of sexism here, both in the way Olivia is treated and in the way she’s written, and it’s vicious and yet completely empty, so you can’t even really get angry about it.
Here’s the thing: a bad play with exciting, new, ideas, with something to say – with a voice and a clear purpose – is so, so much better than a bad play, or even a good play, that says or does nothing new. This play takes itself and its subject matter so seriously, labouring over every word, setting up a complicated stage of internal politics between school students, staff, trustees – Quentin Tapley (Jonathan Deves) (seriously, these names) (the first openly gay member of the Board of Trustees) features prominently, because then he too can be accused of assault) – but it actually ends up being as old-fashioned, defensive, and offensive as every real life story of a school currently under scrutiny for its own real-life cases of alleged sexual assault and abuse.
Vice, a brand new play decades in the making, sounds and feels tired. The poor actors are trying and not really succeeding to pull something out of nothing – there are too many missed lines and stilted performances to really be excused – and you’re just going to leave with a headache.