‘Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes’ was puzzling.
Director Tim Hill and Offside Theatre Company bring Hannah Moscovitch’s award-winning play ‘Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes’ to Brisbane audiences for the first time.
Amongst the sarcastic and self-loathing loaded monologues sits the unsettling acknowledgement of power, gender and age, encircling a story that begins with sexual tension, spirals into doubt and denial, and stops abruptly in a kind of retrospective reflection. However, no matter how witty and sharp Jon’s dialogue is, or how conflicted, confused and jolted 19-year-old university student and budding writer Annie becomes, Moscovitch’s choice to focus on Jon unravels to reveal a problematic, one-sided story. What begins as an initially endearing choice to focus on Jon through his third-person monologues, turns into the reality of an unanticipated choice for a female writer to tell the story from a man’s perspective. Then, as the female character is underestimated, pigeonholed and silenced, a feeling that something just doesn’t sit right begins to grow, and it isn’t just due to the workplace ethics and moral dilemmas surrounding the affair.
From the production’s beginnings, and indeed Jon’s opening monologue, Jon discusses how women are presented to him, and have been represented by writers like him, as aloof and simplistic in his world of storytelling. He laments the fact that women are simplified to two-dimensional secondary characters, physical objects of sexual desire, or portrayed as manipulative and scheming or confusing and driven by too much emotion. Yet Jon reveals one fatal flaw present in all of his anecdotes, examples and biased stories: these women are limited in their power, purpose and influence. This is a welcomed reflection from a male author, even if it’s simply pointing out well-established limitations of one form, genre or perspective on writing that perhaps Jon has been exposed to throughout his career. However, all things considered, the irony in this show really is that this story becomes a part of the problem – the young woman of Jon’s own desires becomes an underrepresented, symbolic mental image of a girl in a red coat – unnervingly uncanny to a big bad wolf chasing after little red riding hood.
As Jon welcomes us into his current distractions, frustrations and marriage breakdowns, we learn about his efforts to juggle two careers as both a published author and a university lecturer. We are swept up in accounts that ricochet through clichéd binaries of female representation from his past. There are descriptions of colleagues in academia being reduced to stereotypically unattractive archetypes; his separation from his wife after years of neglect and workaholic tendencies; and finally, young university students stroking his ego, praising his writing and reminding him of his lost youth. If it weren’t for the fast pace and razor-sharp wit in Moscovitch’s dialogue, Jon’s story would feel worn out and predictable. So in the face of clichés and student-teacher sexual misconduct, all hope for depth, new perspectives, and abolishment of two-dimensional female stereotypes seems to be pinned on Annie, the young woman in the red coat who Jon continually, and conveniently, continues to bump into.
The aspect that makes this story intriguing, rather than purely unnerving, is the fact that Annie seems to make a lot of active choices. She approaches Jon casually at first, and then begins to take the initiative to connect with her lecturer through her love of his writing. Despite the undeniable reality that an affair is imminent, it is Annie’s mysterious energy, unidentifiable objectives, and fleeting glimpses into her very recent, dissatisfying teenage years that keep the story from becoming stale.
However, the undeniable reality that Annie is only shown on stage with Jon, and subsequently only through his eyes, reveals the all-too-real exploitation of a young woman’s desire to be accepted, respected, and heard by a man that exploits his power. The focus on Jon’s closed-minded view of the whole situation buries the demoralizing aspects of the affair, along with deeper insights, personal conflicts and intentions that Annie may have revealed before or after their encounters. In fact, we are only shown the moments where Jon confides in us, never Annie. Even when he scorns himself for neglecting her perspective, acting on impulses and disregarding professionalism, it is still undeniable that this story – no matter how engaging, interesting, and entangled in the past, present, and future social, political and sexual ethics – is still being told by a man with more power.
Long after the affair is underway and the moral dilemmas are rearing their heads, some audience members may not have been able to untie the knot of discomfort in their stomachs – and it may be because the questions surrounding Annie aren’t yet – or indeed, in some cases, ever – answered. It is unnerving that the perspective of a man is prioritised, even when the writer behind the story is a woman. This choice may have been a therapeutic experience, where the female writer is able to return to events from his perspective and better understand the choices and justifications that led him there. However, this rendered a one-sided, unresolved list of questions and concerns surrounding the young woman swept up in the whole thing. What young Annie felt after the affair–empowered, exploited, mistreated or a combination of many different feelings–is never truly revealed to the audience. Annie is only briefly shown to struggle or fight back before storming out of a room, being silenced, or summarising her perspective with a single line of dialogue. Her story, even when pieced together through Jon’s retellings, tragically remains a mystery.
Amongst the captivating comedic writing, taboo topics of age, sex and power dynamics, and overall explorations of reality dismantling naïve or misguided expectations, Offside Theatre Company combines captivating performance with detailed design and confident direction. The production thus attempts to highlight Annie’s experiences while racing through Jon’s accounts of their relationship.
Combining youthful excitement, playful flirtation, simmering frustration, and deep devastation, Josie Cross wades through Jon’s views of Annie to bring to life the mysterious and misunderstood young woman. With a lot more material to dive into, Stephen Hirst’s playful, relatable and earnest performance as Jon turns what could be a self-absorbed man of talent into a multifaceted, energetic and captivating performance that almost makes up for the one-sided story arc.
Set Designer Alex Riley and Wesley Bluff’s lighting design guided the audience in compartmentalising the numerous homes, offices and hotels that Jon inhabits, while complimenting director Tim Hill’s assured weaving through scenes, locations and realities between the two focal characters. Riley’s choice to drape handwritten excerpts from the script as backdrops to hotel lobbies, bedrooms and offices encapsulates a memory of a conversation and reinforces the story’s focus on the two characters as writers as well as lovers.
With the script inhabiting the space before the actors themselves, Riley’s set design introduced the sense that the story was a retelling of events, with conversations waiting to be returned to and spoken aloud by the characters themselves. Meanwhile, Sound Designer Brady Watkins plays with delicate yet unnerving combinations of string instruments and deep tension-loaded synth soundscapes to create a sophisticated fusion of hope and anguish.
Despite combining bold depictions of taboo student-teacher affairs with captivating performances of puzzling characters, Hannah Moscovitch’s story and its one-sided approach for a two-hander production render Offside Theatre Company’s intricate design, fast-paced direction and charismatic performances diluted amongst story potential that falls short of what could have been a powerful exploration of sexuality and power dynamics between two intriguing yet vastly different characters.
‘Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes’ performed until Saturday, 18th February 2023 at Metro Arts. For more information visit the Metro Arts website.
Photo by Alex Riley.