O You Sweet Heavens: Doyle’s Vere

I had thought to call Doyle’s Vere ‘the Stoppard end of Williamson’ but of course there is no such thing, Like Biggins’ Australia Day it has a Shavian glint, and Shaw’s successors Hare, Brenton, Bennett and Frayn would not flinch were it fathered on them, and Williamson, an intellectual boofhead, is not any more in the event; not since The Department anyway.

It deals with death and the universe and the quarrel of science with Intelligent Design and the Lear-like madness of a good man with rapidly-growing dementia in a mild-mannered way, first at an end-of-term impromptu office party at a University, and then at an engagement party in a high-rise apartment (the altitude is significant) in Sydney.

Vere (Paul Blackwell), an eminent physicist who shares a Christian name with Vere Gordon Childe, the Marxist historian and suicidal archeologist, and Herbert Vere Evatt, the famously demented Labor lawyer and leader and brilliant architect of the modern world, is diagnosed with a fatal swift mind-crumbling ailment at the end of the academic term, a few days before he is to go to Switzerland to witness the Higgs’ Boson — the God particle — being affirmed, or not. He stifles the dire news with difficulty, and with his colleagues — a nose-picking young disciple, a compassionate female fellow physicist, a lecherous calm grey-bearded Vice Chancellor (Paul Morell), the nervous doctoral student he wishes to pork — he explores the question of the beetroot since ancient times and, as Stephen Fry might do on QI, the many meanings that males, especially, have attributed to it. This is very funny, but sadly underscored by the initially unshared knowledge of his illness.

In the second act the same assembly of actors play other people but the demented Vere thinks they are the first lot, and calls them by the wrong names and totters, incontinent, round a dinner party like Lear or his Fool and attacking, especially, Roger, a Hillsong minister (Morrell again) and his clenched wife Kathy (Rebecca Massey), who believe his madness is a struggle between God and the Devil in his soul, and his faith in science (‘Vere’ means ‘faith’) is the work of Beelzebub and a prelude to an eternity of burning and screaming.

…It is very, very difficult to achieve this balancing-act of comedy, tragedy and intellectual tussle — of science, the Bible, Shakespeare and one’s individual imminent extinction — but Doyle makes it look a breeze. Like Hare in Racing Demons he gives the Christians their dignity while showing their crazed bellicose pomposity. Like Shakespeare he gives the poor addled man his dignity and his raging heart — O you sweet heavens, let me not be mad — and the calm eye of God, which more and more looks like that of Spike Milligan, and less and less like that of Paul Davies, his form and pressure.

Sarah Goode’s direction is very fine, but a more vivid projection of Vere’s crumbling universe on the back wall would have been preferable, I think. Morrell’s mastery of the academic villain and the smug churchman is worthy of Rex Harrison. Rebecca Massey’s shrieking Hillsong bitch is amazing, and Paul Blackwell, meek as a titmouse, proud as a bantam, is what we used to call a tour de force.

All in vain, of course. The show is closed, and I got to it on the last day. A salute to its passing anyway, and a high bugle call to Doyle, our finest living master of the stage.

  1. I Thank you for writing kindly of Mr Evatt, Bob.

  2. I had fully intended to see it, and was in any case urged by fiends, but it seems to have had a very short season indeed. But i cannot agree that Doyle is our greatest living playwright: what of Janis Balodis? do you not know ‘Too Young for Ghosts?’, and the other two in the trilogy? ‘Backyard’? “Wet and Dry’? I commend them, and him.

    • I hear you, and the plays you mention are superb, and there is not much in it. In sum, however, Changi, My Space Odyssey, Pig Iron People and Vere add up to a little more. PIP is nearly as good as Death of a Salesman, and Vere as good as, oh, August: Osage County or The Madness of George III. If you add to these his Roy Slaven soliloquies and the writing of Club Buggery, he pulls way ahead of the pack.

      Nonetheless, I hear you. Balodis is amazing, and his neglect in favour of sluggish dud Williamson re-runs a national shame.

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