A year to the day that the Melbourne Theatre Company put on their last show, the doors to the Southbank Theatre were flung open again to welcome a packed house for the opening night of Canadian playwright Hannah Moscovitch’s Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes.
Starring Dan Spielman and Izabella Yena as Jon and Annie, Moscovitch’s take on the archetypal student-teacher relationship in the midst of the #MeToo era comes armed to the teeth with sharp observations and criticisms of the middle-class man’s privilege and arrogance.
Jon, a university lecturer and successful author, is spiralling into an early mid-life crisis when seemingly out of nowhere Annie and her red coat leave him completely bewitched. Annie, a teenage student in one of his classes, is a huge fan of Jon’s work and quickly finds herself swept up into his celebrity, resulting in the pair entering into a secret sexual relationship. Running for approximately 75 minutes without intermission, Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes spans a period of several years as the pair go from acquaintances, lovers, and back again.
Much like a novel, Moscovitch has divided her story into chapters. As a result of it being a rather insular play, the set remains stagnant throughout the runtime with only the cast and occasional prop moving around. A static set can sometimes be a drawback, making it harder to distinguish one scene or setting from another. Thankfully, this is not the case for Moscovitch’s piece. Utilising a large projector screen that hangs over the centre stage, Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes is punctuated with witty and snappy chapter titles that appear as if being typed out in real time, helping set the tone and plot element of each scene.
With a cast of only 2, Yena and Spielman – especially Spielman – have the difficult task of commanding the whole stage, and both leads were more than up for the challenge. With much of the play focused on and narrated by Jon, Spielman spends the entire 75 minutes on stage, guiding the audience through the narrative of his affair with Annie.
While the thought of hearing a grown man talk non-stop about his attraction to a teenage girl may present as a turn-off to some, there’s something so annoyingly entertaining about the way he tells this story. Never once speaking about himself in the first person, Jon’s retelling of his affair is presented as observational rather than lived (a stylistic choice that will make more sense at the closing of the performance) and is told so casually and conversationally that it is, in many places, extremely funny. And maybe this is due mostly to Spielman’s flawless delivery rather than the script itself, though regardless of which factor influences what, the end result is utterly engaging and a testament to the skills of everyone involved.
Yena, to her credit, does great work with what scenes she has. Annie weaves in and out of the story as Jon commands her to, gracing the stage like an apparition. Immediately we feel a sense of responsibility for her, a sense of pity as we recognise in her a young girl who naively thinks of herself as grown, making dumb choices under the guise of being an independent and well-informed adult. Whether intentionally or not, Jon’s seduction of Annie, a fan of his work and a student he teaches, is manipulation disguised as consent. As the performance progresses, as the flame between them fizzles out and she continues to grow as a person, we see Annie’s understanding of the affair change. The inner turmoil she expresses is a familiar one – the kind where we question all the choices and decisions we’ve made, holding them up against the light of maturity and evolved thinking, wondering whether we made those decisions because we wanted to or were just made to think that we did.
Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes is, somewhat surprisingly, not a gospel piece. What Moscovitch, and the team at MTC have put together is a ‘woke’ investigation designed to delight patrons as much as encourage them to reflect. It feels as though Moscovitch’s intention with her latest offering is to highlight the inherent privilege of men in positions of power and the burdens of women who too often carry the consequences of that privilege.
Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes doesn’t preach at its audience and never delves into the territory of harsh exposé or morality tale, making it an easy piece to chew and digest – a great achievement for a play that builds itself on such a delicate and nuanced subject matter.
MTC’s Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes will be playing at the Southbank Theatre, The Sumner in Melbourne until April 1st.
For more information and ticketing, visit: https://www.mtc.com.au/plays-and-tickets/whats-on/mtc-2021-act-1/sexual-misconduct-of-the-middle-classes/
Photography by Jeff Busby.