Empire: Terror on the High Seas (Tamarama Rock Surfers) runs from September 4-28 2013 at the Bondi Pavilion. By Toby Schmitz, directed by Leland Kean.
There is a lot that is very interesting about Empire: Terror on the High Seas. It is a play with a lot of layers, a lot of nuances, a lot of complexities. Story and history are stacked together here, narratives of colonialism and aestheticism running parallel to the gory murder mystery that drives the plot. It has the potential to be fascinating. Sadly, it isn’t. It’s bloated and bombastic, the interesting moments and scenes buried underneath the weight of so much stuff, leaving the play to collapse under its own weight.
This really bummed me out, because I enjoyed I want to sleep with Tom Stoppard from the same creative team very much last year, and I had high hopes for this one. Anyone who’s read my blog on even a semi-regular basis will also know how much I love mystery and horror on the stage, so I was doubly pumped. The premise is full of fun: a murder mystery on board a ship? in the 1920s? Yes please. That sounds awesome. But the premise is misleading. Empire is obviously intended to be much more than an episode of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries on steroids. This is also more than fine, but what results is a colossus of a show, trying to do way way too much, and yet strangely at the same time, not that much at all.
The best way I can think of is to describe this as a kind of 1920s episode of The Mole. You’re in a situation with set limitations (here, the confined space of a ship), and you know someone on board with you is the eponymous mole – in this case, a serial killer. People keep getting eliminated (killed), narrowing the number of suspects while ratcheting up the tension. Actually, let me revise this comparison. The first act of Empire is like a 1920s super-murder-y episode of The Mole. But imagine if you were watching The Mole and it was revealed who the mole was halfway through the season? The dramatic tension would deflate immediately, right? In Empire, the murderer is revealed to the audience not in the traditional Agatha Christie-style denouement, where all the suspects are gathered while the detective cracks the case wiiiiiiiiide open in an epic soliloquy, but at the end of the first act (and to be honest, it’s not that hard to work it out before then). This leaves the second act floundering with nowhere really to go. There’s a secondary plotline about a mysterious illness affecting several of the passengers on board, but to be honest, it’s pretty weaksauce. It becomes incredibly frustrating, as you wonder why these people are so dumb they can’t work out who the killer is.
I appreciate that playwright Toby Schmitz is trying to subvert the tropes of the genre here, and in some respects, it’s quite cool. I would talk more about this, but it would be a bit of a dead giveaway (pun obviously intended) as to who the killer is. Suffice it to say that there is an aesthetic reason to do with an artistic movement, and the way the show interacts with it is pretty clever. But while it might work thematically, generically...? not so much. At interval, I really wasn’t sure where the show would go after unmasking the murderer so soon. Could it be a false reveal? Were there two murderers? Was there going to be some big twist? Turns out... no. Dramatic irony and gore was just not enough to carry the second act.
This tension between theme and genre is one that underpins the whole show. I feel like Empire sacrificed form for style, but you can’t really have the latter without the former. There are a lot of ideas contained within the framework of the murder mystery here – for example, the image of the human zoo, which some of the passengers discuss, is neatly mirrored by the plight of the characters, caged in their staterooms in the larger, inescapable cage of the ship. The chaos and anarchy that spreads as the killer begins to claim more and more victims mimics the crumbling of empire. The spectre of World War I lurks beneath the conversations of the 1920s bright young things, who are largely unaware not only of the effect it had, but the effect it is still having on their society. But all this cleverness is wasted when the story isn’t engaging. It’s hard to care about these nuances when you don’t really care about the characters. It’s hard to appreciate the wide-ranging impact of history on the events of the show when said events are not that interesting. What might have seemed like interesting detail becomes pontificating. You can’t appreciate the beauty of the single tree, because the whole forest is drowning it out.
I would like to commend the cast, who do a good job with some very tough material. And if you like gore on stage (I do, a lot), then there are some moments which you will really enjoy. But for me, Empire: Terror on the High Seas just did not work. Sailing in at just under three hours, it is much too long, especially considering that the tension bleeds out of it in the second half as surely as if the show itself were one of the killer’s victims. Thematically, it’s an interesting play, but this alone cannot make a good show. I wanted to like this so much, and I just couldn’t.