Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes | Melbourne Theatre Company with Belvoir

Image by Jaimi Joy

[NOTE: This review contains a major spoiler in the second to last paragraph. Audience members who wish to be surprised are advised not to read it.]

When the #MeToo movement went viral in 2017 it began exposing the complicity of the entertainment industry in maintaining and covering up predatory power dynamics between older male gatekeepers and younger women new to the industry who saw their exploitation as a necessary stepping stone in their burgeoning careers. But that power dynamic was not new nor was it limited to Hollywood. Hannah Moscovitch’s 2020 script illustrates the same patterns alive and well in academia and the writing industry.

It’s a story so familiar, it doesn’t need a lot of explaining. Jon (Dan Spielman) is a middle-aged, thrice married, thrice separated academic and novelist with a big name, big ego, and big sense of entitlement. Annie (Izabella Yena) is a 19-year-old student who catches Jon’s eye and who, thankfully, has a spark of writing talent to justify his inappropriate attention towards her. They begin an affair. He ends it abruptly and self-pityingly before beginning a family with his returned wife, while Annie continues into her adulthood and a writing career of her own in the theatre. Moscovitch’s script is quippy with a kind of hedged self-awareness as though acknowledging the wrongness of the character’s actions means it can’t be that wrong. Structured with numbered and titled scenes, the script has a pacy forward momentum that helps slide through the painfully familiar plot points projected onto the back wall. What was interesting, though, was how easily Moscovitch’s script and characters slipped into an Australian context which perhaps illuminates how unoriginal our tropes and discourse are.

Under the direction of Petra Kalive, Jon takes on the air of the charming larrikin who might do bad things but at least they’re not harmful because we all laugh about it later, anyway. He’s arrogant but funny, smart but impulsive, proud but childish. He’s Rake, he’s Ruben Guthrie, he’s James Packer in Packer & Sons, he’s the patriarchy mixed with a particular kind of Australian national identity. In this case, though, he’s placed inside a university, so Jon’s actions are wrapped within the recent discussion of misconduct towards students at Australian universities. Kendall Feaver’s Wherever She Wanders in 2021 tapped into the specific allegations of sexual assault and harassment at university colleges but Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes falls alongside Diana Reid’s best selling novel Love & Virtue or other theatrical examples like Oleanna by David Mamet that include a focus on the teacher/student power dynamic. In these ways, Moscovitch’s script speaks specifically to Australian audiences by drawing uncomfortable attention to the connection between a favourite character trope and a culture of misogyny, exploited power imbalances, and sexual misconduct in our institutions.

At the same time, Kalive’s direction plays down the sinister implications of the script and the relationship by framing Jon and Annie as an off-kilter meet-cute rather than predation. There was a balance between discomfort, embarrassment, gleeful flirting, and anger, particularly in Annie’s reactions, that kept the relationship ambiguous until four years later, when Annie finally started talking only to be ignored by Jon.

Spielman and Yena embodied their roles very well with Spielman’s easy, open physicality moving smoothly around Yena’s stiffer self-consciousness for further illustration of their characters’ relationship. Spielman’s Jon was charming and amiable which won over many in the audience and elided his sneakier and slipperier qualities. Yena was equally captivating but for her restrained emotional interior, hidden from the audience until much later in the production. As a side note, repeated reference to her red coat and her presence as a character spoken about more than speaking echoed the choral construction of Anne, the central figure in Martin Crimp’s Attempts on Her Life, which added another layer of voyeurism to Jon and enigmatism to Annie.

The set design by Marg Horwell was a combination of realism in Jon’s office desk stacked with papers and imagination with a large raised empty square centre stage representing the street, Jon’s porch and lawn, his living room, and a hotel room at different times. This split in approach to setting was uneven and distracting with seats and a large couch permanently placed around the perimeter of the stage for brief use while the majority of the key action scenes occurred within the blank square. Similarly, the lighting design from Rachel Burke incorporated some play with space with the square spread with a green lawn and rays of sunlight piercing Jon’s monologues but the lighting otherwise seemed swallowed up by the empty centre space, struggling to actively engage with the margins of the stage and the central action equally. This was compensated for with a roving spotlight on Jon, making sure attention never strayed from his story and amplifying his celebrity status.

It was the scene of Annie and Jon meeting four years later and the following conversation, again years later, that held the genius of Moscovitch’s script, for they revealed that the posturing, self-pitying, and self-congratulating monologues of Jon’s through which the majority of the play was conveyed were actually written by Annie. In order to work through their relationship and the consequences of it, Annie wrote it down, inhabiting Jon’s perspective as a representation of the power dynamics at play. Like most of these kinds of unbalanced relationships, Jon got to choose how it started, what they did, where they went, how it ended, and what it meant. So by taking over their story, telling it from his perspective with her voice, Annie completely erased Jon’s agency and took control of the narrative. It’s clever, unexpected, subversive, and it acknowledges exactly how powerful the “official narrative” is.

Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes fits squarely into a reckoning in Australia with the status quo of power imbalances, gendered violence and misconduct, and a conspiracy of cover-ups across industry after industry and it takes a clear stance on the position of the arts to change the narrative, flip the script, and reframe our relationship to institutional misogyny and abuse.

Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes is running at Belvoir from June 2nd – July 10th

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