Despite its shock value having expired decades ago, fascination in the coming of age fable The Graduate remains strong. Whether due to current Mad Men-fueled interest in the 1960s, memories of the classic movie or nostalgia for a time when the worst thing a young guy could do is sleep with a woman twice his age, the latest incarnation of the story as a play proves a timely attraction set to entertain and amuse Melbourne audiences.
Top notch production values and a tight script, along with a high profile guest star and a talented local cast, combine for a slick, glossy evening in the theatre.
Enduring beauty Jerry Hall, blessed not just with a striking figure but also with an extraordinary mane of blonde tresses, is well cast as emotionally hollow trophy wife Mrs Robinson. Benjamin Braddock, the titular graduate, has everything he could need but no idea what he wants. No idea, that is, until the equally ungrateful and unsatisfied Mrs Robinson sets the young man in her blearily seductive sights. Iconic moments from the movie zip by in the opening scene before the story goes on to focus on Benjamin’s ardent love for Mrs Robinson’s daughter Elaine, an attraction that faces seemingly insurmountable odds as the truth about the sexual shenanigans rapidly surfaces.
Terry Johnson’s script hits the ground running to the extent that it is initially a struggle to form attachments with the central characters. Mrs Robinson, in particular, is quite an inscrutable woman, a factor that Hall embraces in her characterisation rather than trying to overcome with unnecessary quirks and affectations. It becomes clear over time that these are largely unlikeable people, victims of their own financial success and material excess. The black comedy lies in recognizing the types of characters, completely relevant fifty years later, and feeling a certain smug amusement at the complications of their efforts to find meaning in their shallow, pampered lives.
Unlike the US sitcom model to which we have become accustomed, jokes do not come flying out every thirty seconds, and events are not wrapped in neat predictable bows. With a nod to the intelligence of adult audiences, the comedy builds as gradual layers of the characters are revealed, with developments becoming funnier the more we become involved. Rather than being manipulated to feel a certain way, our reading of the characters and their actions is left largely to our own judgment.
Timothy Dashwood is an earnest, forthright Ben, more than holding his own in the large central role. Perhaps a little tall and handsome to work as the naïve, easily influenced youth, Dashwood nonetheless conveys wide-eyed, love-struck vulnerability and sex-struck impetuousness with flair.
Claire Loverling, as Elaine, is particularly successful at creating one of the few endearing characters. A highlight is Ben and Elaine’s parentally-imposed first date, in which Loverling makes it very clear why Ben falls in love with Elaine. Loverling handles the melodrama of the plot twists with style, avoiding any petulance or histrionics in Elaine’s reactions.
Luke Hewitt, as impugned husband Mr Robinson, makes some over-the-top humour most believable. Pippa Grandison and Peter Houghton deliver some neat comic touches as Ben’s conservative, well-meaning parents.
Briony Williams has a salacious cameo as an empowered stripper. Talented character actor Adam Murphy creates a range of delightful characters.
On a scale well above most plays by our local subsidized companies, The Graduate is an entertaining diversion that is sure to provoke some post-theatre discussion.
The Graduate plays at Melbourne’s Her Majesty’s Theatre until 13 October 2013.
Photos: Jeff Busby