A legendary actor directing a legendary actor in a play about a legendary actor. That’s how locals have summarized the competent and controlled directing debut of popular Oz thesp Judy Davis in the first overseas production of “Barrymore.”
Davis oversees a tour de force by veteran Oz thesp Barry Otto with a somewhat unsentimental and detached but always steady hand. The production evokes morbid fascination and interest in, but never sympathy for, the sometimes-comically pathetic final scramble for glory and dignity of an engrossingly repellent, vain and self-destructive character.
Otto, well-known for such films as “Cosi,” shines in the role that won Christopher Plummer a Tony Award, portraying pathetically fragile, fading screen and stage thesp John Barrymore. Attempting a scene from “Richard III” just before his death in 1942 at age 60, the play’s Barrymore becomes lost in an alcoholic haze of self-pity and rambling memories of boozing and womanizing.
A major mistake is the appearance onstage of the previously offstage prompter (nonetheless played well by Davis Harvey) in what is essentially a one-man show that is clearly the proud offspring of both Davis and Otto, who talked her into directing him in it.
Davis’ use of a revolving set (one side shabby, the other shiny) is sometimes distracting, but ultimately achieves its objective as a device to suggest muddled memories, changes of mood and feelings of dislocation and inconsistency.
In all, Davis makes a welcome return to the Sydney stage after a 10-year absence, defying her own remarks several years ago that she’d make a terrible director. One suspects this piece gives only a small hint at Davis’ directorial promise.