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 that embraces the more complicated questions instead of offering easy answers.
The story is told by middle-aged lecturer and author Jon (Dan Spielman): quick-witted and lauded as a rockstar academic but agonizing over his failed marriages (three now). Set before the #MeToo movement, Jon is attempting to write his latest novel – we hear it’s about loggers – but cannot pinpoint why he’s so creatively frustrated.
Dan Spielman and Izabella Yena in Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes run 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, and calls him “cool”. There’s a budding attraction, but 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 the 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 romanticize and reduce young women as objects of fiction, yet resists the idea that he could ever become such a stereotype (spoiler: he does).
‘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 realization of the situation’s wrongfulness 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 hear from? And Jon comes razor-thin close to dictating the story to the play’s disservice – until a turning point at which we realize 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 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 realizations as brief and fast-forgotten. “He recognized this wasn’t good,” a chapter heading reads, just before he succumbs to the temptation: “So, he … yeah”, he admits to us.
‘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 space 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 about who holds the upper hand.
Marg Horwell’s multifunctional set grapples with her characters’ changing relationships through time. 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.
Retrospection becomes the play’s most powerful tool – it lends it a sense of immediacy and pertinence – and asks us who controls the narrative.