Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes review – knotty and nuanced #MeToo play | Stage

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In navigating #MeToo era discussions around sexual consent and power dynamics, nuance is everything – a challenge Canadian playwright Hannah Moscovitch rises to in her incisive Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes. The play won the governor general’s literary award when it was first performed in 2020. It’s now playing at Belvoir Street theatre in Sydney – a transfer production of its Australian premiere in 2021 at the Melbourne Theatre Company.

Directed by Petra Kalive in a tight 80 minutes, this is a refreshingly charged and engaging take on a story of a teacher-student affair which – instead of offering easy answers – embraces the more complicated questions.

The story is told by middle-aged lecturer and author, Jon (Dan Spielman): quick-witted and lauded as a rockstar academic, but agonising over his failed marriages (three now). Set prior to the #MeToo movement, Jon is attempting to write his latest novel – we hear it’s about lumberjacks – but is unable to pinpoint why he’s so creatively frustrated.

Dan Spielman and Izabella Yena in Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes, which runs at Belvoir St theatre until 10 July. Photograph: Jaimi Joy

Enter 19-year-old Annie (Izabella Yena), a young undergraduate student of Jon’s who catches his eye with her striking red coat. She’s smart, and a huge admirer of his work. She lives close by, sits at the front of his class, calls him “cool”. There’s a budding attraction, but – as Jon insists – he’s never been tempted to pursue the college girl fantasy.

Jon and Annie’s forbidden sexual relationship – clouded by their age difference, the power dynamics and faculty handbook rules – becomes a source of Jon’s inner moral turmoil and an irresistible outlet for his emotional and creative satisfaction. In monologues, he narrates the affair in past tense as it plays out in the present (the play is structurally broken up by chapter titles, projected on a screen behind the stage), revealing a charming but self-consciously flawed man. He’s aware of how older male writers romanticise and reduce young women as objects of fiction, yet resists the idea that he could ever become such a stereotype (spoiler: he does).

Dan Spielman & Izabella Yena in Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes
‘The heavy emphasis on Jon’s inner thoughts invariably poses the question: is he who we should be hearing from?’ Photograph: Jaimi Joy

In a dizzying and captivating performance, Spielman expertly saddles this role – swinging between his realisation around the wrongfulness of the situation, and his justification that his relationship with Annie “didn’t feel bad or creepy – it felt good”. But the heavy emphasis on Jon’s inner thoughts invariably poses the question: is he who we should be hearing from? And Jon comes razor-thin close to dictating the story to the play’s disservice – until a turning point at which we realise that he may no longer be holding the cards.

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It’s here where Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes finds its spark. By framing the story through a male point-of-view, Moscovitch shrewdly steers away from a line of #MeToo revisionist pieces, in which female protagonists reclaim full control of their own sexuality and power (see: Promising Young Woman). Instead, Jon’s third-person narration adds layers of depth; Moscovitch uses it to gently skewer his contradictions, revealing his most acute moral realisations as brief and fast-forgotten. “He recognised this wasn’t good,” a chapter heading reads, just before he succumbs to the temptation: “So, he … yeah”, he admits to us.

Dan Spielman and Izabella Yena
‘Jon and Annie’s forbidden sexual relationship becomes a source of Jon’s inner moral turmoil and an outlet for his emotional and creative satisfaction.’ Photograph: Jaimi Joy

When the play fast-forwards into the wake of #Me Too, new light is cast on Annie and Jon’s relationship. Although the play pulls its punches in one of its most challenging conversations about consent and abuse of power – when Annie, now in her early 20s, dares to express her take on the affair – Kalive pulls enough from her lingering confusion to tap into the subtleties of what goes unsaid.

This is also due to Yena’s talent: Annie is self-assured, bright and funny – but with her wringing hands, shuffling feet and lumbering childlike movements, the actor leaves no illusions as to who holds the upper hand.

Marg Horwell’s multifunctional set grapples with her characters’ changing relationship through time, and Rachel Burke’s lighting design switches focus between Jon’s narrative authority, and Jon and Annie’s real-time dialogue – crucially taking the play to a final moment of catharsis for Annie and the audience.

To its strength – and to a smaller degree, its detriment – Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes asks more questions than it answers. But it shows us the complexities: Jon’s well-meaning but blinkered intentions, Annie’s young desire for approval, and the reflection brought with age and hindsight.

In fact, retrospection becomes the play’s most powerful tool – it lends it a sense of immediacy and pertinence – and asks us just who gets to control the narrative.

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