Australia’s most prolific playwright, Stephen Sewell, loves an issue. In “The Gates of Egypt” he tackles the ways in which regular Oz citizens are disengaged from the struggles in the Middle East, despite their nation being active in the U.S.-led campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. Kate Gaul’s production for Company B is crisp and energetic, but polarizing in its bleak portrayal of Muslim vs. Christian cultures.
While recent opinion polls indicate Sewell’s countrymen are beginning to shake off their disinterest in international issues, his apathetic Aussies, Leanne (Anna Lise Phillips) and Frank (Russell Kiefel), remain the majority.
They work hard, pay taxes, love their family and dream of a bigger house with a pool — and while they might in principle disagree with the Iraq war, they continue to vote conservatively because otherwise the interest rates on their home loans might rise.
Clarice (Lynette Curran) is the playwright’s conscience character, recently widowed and disenchanted by the selfish preoccupations of her daughter Leanne and so many others.
In contrast with Leanne, Clarice cannot shake the knowledge that on the day she buries her husband of four decades, 54 women and children are killed by blasts in Iraq.
To her family’s consternation Clarice undertakes a spiritual journey to Egypt where she ignores safety warnings and barrels headfirst into danger, leaving her bewildered children to debate her actions.
Sewell’s key achievement here is his ability to distil complex issues of nationhood and racism into an easy story with superficially simple characters, effortlessly embodied in this production by a uniformly strong cast.
With an election due later this year and an invigorated opposition that has managed to put political debate about the war, foreign policy and environmental concerns in the headlines, “The Gates of Egypt” might just find an audience beyond the chattering classes.