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April 23, 2007 | by  | in Theatre |
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The Graduate

Adapted by Terry Johnson
Directed by Catherine Downes
Downstage until April 28
Students $18 with two hour standby

After meeting the excited and generally fantastic Julian Wilson, who was to play Benjamin Braddock, I was all set to love The Graduate. And while I certainly enjoyed this over-the-top, psychedelic-clothes-filled production, there’s something about it that didn’t quite seem to work.

Set in the sixties, it’s the famous story of newly graduated Benjamin Braddock. Upon his arrival home from college, he becomes disillusioned with the world and starts an affair with his parents’ friend – the older, wiser Mrs Robinson – before inappropriately falling for her daughter Elaine, as she’s the only person who challenges him to see that his “life is precious, beautiful.”

A play set in the sixties always has the danger of seeming irrelevant to a modern audience. Instead of playing up the modern resonance of Benjamin Braddock’s classic story of rebellion against his parents and their middle class sensible ways, director Catherine Downes chooses to focus on the sixties’ kitsch-retro elements – by having a soundtrack filled with Simon and Garfunkel tracks, a Technicolor set, over the top twangy American accents, and fabulous – yet ridiculous – costumes such as Mr Braddock’s (Alistair Browning) sparkly purple suit and pink bow tie, and basically anything worn by Mrs Braddock (Geraldine Brophy). These elements and performances work at the start of the play, to locate us in the suburban hell that Benjamin finds himself in upon returning from college. For example, the nagging of his parents to come downstairs as “everybody’s standing in line to shake your hand.” He stands there looking dazed, as this flurry of activity bustles around him. He calls them “grotesque,” and they are. So presumably this style of acting is meant to show these characters from Ben’s point of view.

The funny yet over-the-top performances by most of the supporting characters are contrasted with Mrs Robinson’s portrayal by Catharine Wilkin. This contrast doesn’t work. Wilkin plays Mrs Robinson with truth, heart, a husky voice, a sense of mystery, and a mix of fragility and strength. She, like Benjamin, doesn’t know what’s happened to her life, and is set on a path to give the finger to the world by offering herself to Benjamin. It’s an excellent performance, but one that seems in a different play than the other characters. And whilst she is given a much more fleshed out, realistic role in Johnston’s script (we find out she got pregnant, had to get married, hasn’t had sex with her husband in five years, etcetera), I find it hard to believe that Downes deliberately placed her as “the voice of reason.”

The general style doesn’t quite fit with Johnston’s script. Because, far from being silly, the script is different to the film. It’s deeper. Johnston shows us what it would be like for Ben and Elaine when they run off from the church together.

He gives more depth to Mrs Robinson by giving her a scene alone with Elaine; allowing her to tell us what her life is like with Mr Robinson. This isn’t to say The Graduate isn’t highly enjoyable – the opening night crowd rightly roared with laughter at Wilson’s bumbling performance as Benjamin as he nervously tries to book a room in a hotel to have sex with Mrs Robinson, and at Mrs Robinson’s digs that he might be “inadequate,” causing him to leap onto the bed and rip his clothes off. However, even the sex scenes, which should seem risqué, appear jokey – a montage of thrusting moves in time with “Love Potion no. 9.”

Overall, in a script that offers more, the performances didn’t.

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About the Author ()

Well hello there. Eleanor was the Theatre Editor in 2007, now she writes the Women's Column and just generally minces about the Salient office. Eleanor is currently an Honours student in Theatre (with a touch of gender). She also has a BCA in Marketing but she tries to keep that on the d-low (embarrassing, because she loves academic integrity and also perpetuating the myth that she's a tad bohemian). If you've got a gender agenda, woo her by taking her a BYO Malaysian. She lies, if you show any interest at all she'll probably tackle you in the street and force you to write a column.

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