While all things are meant to be fair in love and war, they aren’t. Yet that doesn’t stop these two timeless x-treme sports sharing many similarities.

British writer, Stephen Jeffries was commissioned to write this play for the STC Actors Company with British director Annabel Arden also booked in from the beginning to bring the work to the stage. The pair work well together: on stage, it’s hand-in-glove from beginning to end; fortunately, since they are also a deux in the real world.

Jeffries is a crafty writer. Here he takes The Art of War – the 5th century BC writings of Chinese warrior and sage Sun Tzu– for theme and structure; testing its theories and strategies against narratives from our own time. Between segments of choral recitation from the ancient text, on one level we follow the unlikely relationship (romance?) between a seasoned left-wing Australian journalist, Crystal (Pamela Rabe) and an even more seasoned US soldier, Garrett (Colin Moody) – set against the backdrop of the early days of the Iraq war. We also follow an Australian events management company making its debut in China Shanghai, to disastrous effect. This story line is led by a confident young Emily Russell as Cindy the new boss; with the rest of the company in a range of roles wrestling for position under the new-look regime.

So seamless is the writing, and fascinating ‘the terrain’ traversed, it would be easy to overlook the technical mastery. Even writers in this country who consider themselves seasoned should take a look at Jeffries’ impeccable technical skills – which in themselves never distract, despite the deployment ‘distancing’ strategies.

This play is the second in a trilogy of works for 12 actors. The first, Interruptions, was directed by Arden at the University of California in 2001. On this occasion Jeffries’ core sources of inspiration include his’ idea’ and photographs (only) of the 12 players who comprise the STC’s Actors’ Company. In creating roles, Jeffries literally took the actors on face value. It’s interesting to note what can be drawn from a headshot only, because the roles are apt – if demanding. No one on stage escapes significant demands on core skills. It’s as if Jeffries is writing roles they ‘should’ be capable of, and so some imaginative ‘stretching’ from certain individuals is not surprising.

Consequently, the production is devoid of look-at-me acting: twice over as they also submit to Arden’s Brechtian approach to the staging. We cut back and forth between choral recitations of key points from Sun Tzu’s treatise; the story line that bonds the relationship of Crystal and Garrett; and the other, a somewhat gauche Australian marketing company trying to crack the Chinese market. Each actor plays a number of roles across the narrative lines.

Jeffries clearly makes the point that Sun Tzu’s insights can be applied, even thousands of years later, to the cut and thrust of both intimate relations and the contemporary workplace. Can any philosophical construct, however well thought thought out, finally hold true on all circumstances? Well, you will have to see the production to pursue that line of thought any further.

In its entirety, the production is well worth seeing. And it is testament to the skills of the writer, director and cast, that what could in lesser hands be unendurably dry – is actually quite gripping, and increasingly so as they action unfolds.

There is ideal support from set designer, Robert Cousins – citing Spartan classicism in a set of ‘monumental’ stairs that carries the cast down to an open space which serves as ‘the battlefield’ for all layers of the drama. And a sensitive contribution by Tess Schofield, her costuming fine-tuned by her ever-remarkable selection of fabrics and patterns. Damian Cooper’s lighting is unfussy, yet ultra-dramatic when required. As usual Max Lyandvert’s sound score is precise in its mood enhancement.

Everyone involved serves the drama: not a hint of diva-syndrome anywhere. One presumes this is director Annabelle Arden’s strong suit. Some might wonder why this particular play for the Actors Company. But it is a fine work in its own right; and it makes for new and quite substantial demands on the company. Those following the work of this troupe closely, as I am, will certainly find the production rewarding.

That said, my companion for the night has not seen the company at work before and usually prefers a few solid show tunes. Yet they too were fully engaged which is testament to the fact that any half-decent production will appeal. Against conventional wisdom, bells and whistles are not compulsory.

It’s not the kind of show where you can pick out key performances. This is very much a company gig by an ensemble expected to live up to that concept in the playing.

As a unit, the STC Actors Company has pulled off another impressive success: with the one admission, that a little too much effort shows at times.

Sydney Theatre Company presents
The Art of War
By Stephen Jeffreys

Venue: Wharf 1
Previews: 14 – 18 May 2007 at 8pm
Opening Night: 19 May 2007
Season: 21 May – 24 June 2007
Times: Mondays 6:30pm, 21 & 28 May, 4 June; Tuesdays – Saturdays 8pm; Sundays 5pm, 17 & 24 June
Matinees: Wednesday 1pm (except 6 June at 12:15pm), Saturday 2pm
Tickets: $73/$60 concession; Matinee $65/$54 concession
Bookings: (02) 9250 1777

Source: australianstage.com.au

Photos by Tania Kelley