Writer Michael Frayn, creator of international hits Copenhagen and Noises Off, explores what it is to be human in a statistically driven world, in Benefactors, his Olivier Award-winning 1984 comedy set in the late 1960s.
Presented by Sydney’s Ensemble Theatre and directed by Mark Kilmurry, the play follows David, a determined architect, as he strives to improve the quality of urban housing, yet chaos ensues when the high-rise boom goes bust and close friends are caught in the crossfire.
Kilmurry’s interest in Benefactors began when he first saw it as a television production in the mid-eighties while he was at drama school and thought what a wonderful sophisticated play it was. “I knew Michael Frayn from Noises Off so was intrigued at his take on contemporary British life,” says Kilmurry. “It was very compelling back then and so I’m very happy to finally revisit. The joy is the plays’ themes haven’t dated.”
As the title suggests, Benefactors is about helping people and explores some of the difficulties inherent in this or in being helped. “The play is about who are benefactors of worthy causes,” Kilmurry explains. “What does it mean to be a benefactor? Why do we help others? For them or is it for us? The play is also comments on the housing crises of modern life, do we build tower blocks, clear old buildings, or redevelop old as new? There is a strong debate about what is good for us living in cities? How do we accommodate more people? Why do we pull houses down and put brutalist modern structures up? But the heart of the play is about the relationships between two couples; one successful, the other not so and their tug of war with each other.”
A true fan, Kilmurry describes Michael Frayn as a genius at creating real characters with real flaws and all the while letting us sympathise with them. “He is a great translator of Chekhov’s work and I think a sense of that infiltrates his comedies. He is also a fine novelist so knows how to create real worlds.” Kilmurry adds that the work has strong humour running through plus characters you can readily identify with.
A challenge, though, is the by-product of all the characters talking to the audience as well as each other. So, while exciting and very clever, the challenge, says Kilmurry, is making it real and fun while leaning into the theatrical device of breaking the fourth wall.
Writer, actor and director, Kilmurry likes plays of all types. He likes variety. Plays that are about something, whether comedy or drama, and tell a great story. “I like drama to be very real, naturalistic, even if it’s an absurd comedy or with heightened language, it needs to be based in a reality you can identify with, ” he says. “I like Shakespeare and classical drama but also new work and contemporary comedies. They all challenge and inspire.”
Originally from Coventry in the UK and now based in Sydney, Kilmurry started as an actor in what he describes as a wonderful Simon Gray play called Japes. He first came to Australia in 1991 with his award-winning theatre company The Snarling Beasties, and moved permanently in 1996. Following a hugely successful career with Ensemble Theatre, Kilmurry is now the sole artistic director
“Sandra Bates, artistic director at the time, asked me to be associate director, which I did for ten years, then co-artistic director, then finally sole artistic director, from 2016.”
Based in Kirribilli, on the edge of Sydney Harbour, Ensemble Theatre is committed to performing and presenting the best of international plays, well-loved classics and new Australian works. Kilmurry believes theatre should be for everyone. “That’s our tag, if you like. It should be an inclusive place not exclusive.”
The four-person ensemble includes Emma Palmer (TV’s Playschool, Sport for Jove’s Romeo and Juliet) as Jane and Gareth Davies (Bell Shakespeare’s The Literati, Melbourne Theatre Company’s The Cherry Orchard) as her husband, David. They will play opposite Matt Minto (Q Theatre’s Everything After, The Big Time) and Megan Drury (Wright&Grainger’s The Gods, The Gods, The Gods, Crunch Time) who will take on the second couple, Colin and Shelia.
Benefactors will guide audiences through a captivating journey of uproarious laughter and poignant reflection.
Says Kilmurry, “Benefactors is a play about relationships written by a master writer at the peak of his powers. It’ll make you laugh but also think. A perfect night out.”
June 16 – July 22
BUY TICKETS: https://www.ensemble.com.au/shows/benefactors/