If media scions stopped being a relentless force for scrutiny and parody, CJ Johnson’s 2005 play The Young Tycoons probably wouldn’t be twice-revived already. In a Murdoch/Packer-ruled Australia, the audience doesn’t need any hand-holding to understand the power yielded by two young sons – Warburton and Vogler – taking over their fathers’ respective businesses.
The story is as much part of our political and cultural makeup than anything else in the country’s history. England has the Royals; we have Bondi brawls and model wives and heavy power-plays over media ownership and control.We have polo and televised cricket and sneering at the elitist broadsheets vs cash-bought tabloid news.
Maybe it’s a little too familiar now. The scandal and excess in this play meets a well-crafted skewering in the form of a journalist (A good, rumpled James Lugton) seeking the truth behind these untouchable young men and their public facades, but we’ve been through all these skewerings before; group sex and pre-nups and drugs and bribes aren’t really all that shocking anymore.
Maybe it is the familiarity, then, that makes it work, as much as it makes it not as exciting as it could be. Like a nostaglia for the present, almost, or the very recent past, when integrity still seemed like something achievable in the world of big-business. Maybe it’s the likable yet reprehensible Kim Vogler; not the smartest kid, but rich and bold, brashly and broadly Australian (played by an excellent Edmund Lembke-Hogan) that centres it all.
Vogler and Warburton experiment with their power – Warburton gingerly, Vogler with a kind of gung-ho sense of entitlement. Investments are made; a deal backfires. Marriages are discussed as little more than set-pieces for powerful men, and the treatment of women in the play aren’t much better – they prop up their men, and even if they have their own conflicts and trials, which they assuredly do, they spend all their time talking about men anyway.
Sally (Paige Gardiner) is Vogel’s clever girlfriend, and Sherilyn (Gabrielle Scawthorn) is Trevor Warburton’s partner. Both women are seen to be as shrewd or more shrewd than their partners. Also a smart woman is Kylie (Briallen Clarke), who works for Vogler and finds a romance of sorts with Dave.
Rather than being empowering, this show of smarts over men they seem to love and like is a tired and sexist trope found commonly in sitcoms; you’ll note the bumbling men are still in positions of power and respect, they are the leading roles, and women are the ‘women behind the men’ who don’t need to be the one in front in their own right – thus reinforcing traditional gender roles. The women in this play would not pass the Bechdel test; the women in this play are devices to show how powerful the men in the play really are, and the agency of these women, no matter how strong in the beginning, diminishes as the play goes on.
When this play was updated for another go-round gender politics should and could have been taken into consideration. Developing independent female voices wouldn’t detract the story; rather, it would create a more well-rounded work.
The Young Tycoons is not slick so much as it plays at being slick, with a sleek set by Katja Handt that has a certain austere charm. Re-worked, though still in the world of 2003 for the Eternity stage, scenes are marked with projected titles. It’s all clean lines and minimalism, because the only messy thing here are the characters, and the world they have created. The set is a quiet foundation for the rapid-fire dialogue, letting it fill the space in noise and staccato bursts and tirades, and in that capacity the set works beautifully.
There is a lot that could be better about this play. Perhaps the best thing about the persistence of The Young Tycoons is that it continues to hold people of power accountable for their actions. This re-staging seems to say, “We still see you, and we’re still not thrilled about how you think you run the world and how pervasive” you are, and it’s a good thing that, theatrically, Johnson is here to keep these men in check. It’s nothing new, but there’s a case to be made for its relevance, and it goes down a bit easier with a few laughs. Laugh instead of cry, right?