Drug abuse, rock and roll and addiction have all descended on the Trafalgar Studios in Andrew Upton’s gritty, darkly comic Riflemind. Directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman and starring John Hannah, the play marks the first step in the collaboration between the Ambassador Theatre Group, Sydney Theatre Company and LAByrinth Theater Company. Charlotte Marshall was in the first night audience.
Set in a sprawling country house, tucked away from temptations and reality, Riflemind tells the story of an aging iconic rock band who cannot decide whether to embark on a reunion tour. After having been off stage for 20 years, the band arrive at song-writer John’s (John Hannah) house to persuade him to pick up the guitar again. After years of drug abuse, John and his wife Lynn (Susan Prior) desperately try to keep hold of the ties to their new life when they are forced to confront their past and ever present addictions head on.
Upton’s characters are genuinely believable as the dysfunctional group. Steve Rodgers gives a clichéd but touching portrayal of the band’s drummer–optimistic and enthusiastic, still clad in denim cut-offs and sweaty t-shirts and seemingly naive to the underlying tensions. Phil (Paul Hilton), the singer and more ‘serious’ musician, is later revealed to be John’s brother, explaining his ability to get beneath his skin. His wife Cindy (Ruth Gemmell) is undeniably based on an aloof, skinny jeaned Kate Moss-type. As dysfunctional as the rest, she declares her husband a ‘musical genius’, whilst secretly sleeping with the crude band manager Sam (Jeremy Sims), seemingly out of boredom rather than anything else.
The relationship between John and Lynn is where the interest in the play really lies. After having helped each other to get clean, they have created a new life for themselves which is dangerously threatening to unravel with the proximity of the band once more. John from the beginning is aggressive and depressive, whilst Lynn does her best, for a while at least, to continue the illusion of healthiness as she preaches about the benefits of yoga, makes continual cups of herbal tea and tries to mother the other characters.
Tension, however, is only ever a scratch beneath the surface, as friendly banter between band members quickly turns into cutting arguments, and old rivalry shows no signs of disappearing. The characters are desperate to re-create what they once had, but also realise that this is impossible and so are stuck in a claustrophobic no-man’s land.
By the end of the play, the set which began an immaculate, elegant kitchen and living space is covered in food, cigarettes and empty vodka bottles, as John and Lynn decide which path they must take.