The Art of War. Sydney Theatre Company

Last night I went to see a performance of the excellent new work “The Art of War” by Stephen Jeffreys. The Art of War was specially commissioned by the Sydney Theatre Company, Actors Company. Yes the play is based on the very ancient and famous work of the same name by Sun Tzu.

Although it is an old text, Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” is still often quoted today, especially in the world of business. This new play addresses Sun Tzu’s philosophy in the context of the play’s three interlinked stories of, love, business and war.

John Gaden (photo by Tania Kelly)

The first act of the play starts off at a cracking pace and the ideas come one after the other like machine gunned crystal to the brain. I absolutely loved the way how the writing presented the ideas in exciting ways. Everything looked so clear, so relevant. It really does look like “The Art of War” can be applied to such wide areas as those explored in the play. However, the second act becomes much murkier as the complexities of real life muddy the waters of Sun Tzu’s advice. At first I thought the playwright had used all his best ideas in the first act and I felt that the play started to falter in the second act. I had the same feeling with Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. On reflection though, I think that the difference between the two acts is a reflection of the difference between the attractiveness of an idea and the reality of its implementation in messy real life. The fog of war, so to speak.

“The Art of War” is a very timely investigation of how ideological driven action without a knowledge of history and the lessons learned in the past can lead to disaster. There definitely is a subtext of rationalism versus empiricism.

The direction of Annabel Arden is very good and I was constantly pleased to see how she moved the actors around the stage; one minute they were moving like a school of fish and then the next they were forming patterns and shapes. There was also very creative use of props,  fluid segues and the humour was well timed.

For me the most compelling idea in the play was that of how philosophies can be interpreted in many different, self serving, and quite often contradictory ways. There are times when this paradox is addressed with what I thought was good effect as various characters use Sun Tzu’s tactics in seemingly opposite ways. The central question posed by the play is; can Sun Tzu’s Art of War be used in all aspects of life? Are Love and business the same as war? If you live in Sydney, I’d say it’s well worth the admission price to find out.

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