Saturday, 26 May 2018

Going Down by Michele Lee – Malthouse/Sydney Theatre Company

The cast of Going Down
Photo by Brett Boardman


This is the story of a writer, a woman, who has writer’s block and feels under pressure to write the next thing. She creates situations in her life to write about and ends up developing the show we’re watching.

The main character is a fictionalised version of the playwright and the play contains a crazy sex scene, fantasy sequences where the writer loses her mind and an important cameo by a member of the large cat family.

If you think all of these elements would add up to create a brilliant show, you’d be right. Except that brilliant show isn’t Michele Lee’s Going Down, it’s Lally Katz’s Atlantis.

The element that is unique to Lee’s show is her background and the key struggle she has is with the expectation that she must delve into her heritage to write her next work or any work at all.

Going Down is a reaction to Michele Lee’s experience with her book, Banana Girl, which received criticism from inside and outside the local Hmong community for not representing her “ethnic experience”. That is great central premise that threads through the show but is mostly lost in sea of heavy-handed, obvious jokes.

The play is a satire on Melbourne hipsters and coffee culture and art wankers and ethnic stereotypes and gender stereotypes and queer stereotypes and the self-indulgent struggle of writers’ block and the expectation that writers should explicitly write what they know.

All those subjects are ripe to be made fun of, but very little of it works very well.

“I’m never going north of Bell Street again,” the main character complains after a terrible time in country Victoria. This feels interesting but it’s not developed. (She talks of being "So-Bey" or South of Bell, which was my favourite joke in the show.)

“I’m come south of the Yarra!” the main character shouts, in the laziest Melbourne joke imaginable.

The play relies so much on references for the audience to “get” that it plays like an episode of Family Guy, a show that is more concerned with being a delivery system for pop culture parody than it is with telling a story. Much of the satire in Lee’s play is purely surface; the names of at least a dozen Melbourne suburbs are recited throughout and every time the Wheeler Centre is mentioned, the laughs got more and more muted.

I love writing that mines specificity of place to good effect. Christos Tsiolkas’ work gets a shout-out because his work is Melbourne-based and very aware of his cultural background, but to what effect? Is Lee criticising him? Or is it just another reference for people who go to book events at the Wheeler Centre to “get”?

Admittedly, even as I resisted the tick-box style of expected local jokes, I couldn’t help but chuckle when the main character shouts at her socially-conscious African-Australian friend “You grew up in Glen Waverley!” It’s funny because I grew up there, too.

The central conceit of a writer who resists embracing cultural touchstones out of fear she’ll stereotype herself is a fascinating one. Putting her up against a rival author who puts her ethnicity front-and-centre should make for a much more challenging work. And challenging can be funny, too.

Unfortunately, Leticia Caceres’ production (originally staged at the Sydney Theatre Company) plays more like a sketch comedy program that hits every joke too many times with performances that redefine over-the-top. Most troubling is Catherine Davies’ one-note central performance as Natalie, the Michele Lee stand-in. The rest of the cast fair better, notably Jenny Wu and Paul Blenheim, as a selection of different characters in Natalie’s life. Wu, in particular, carries much of the weight of the show as Natalie’s rival and later as her mother.

If I hadn’t seen Atlantis, maybe Going Down would have seemed fresher. Perhaps it’s unfair to compare the work of a new writer to one of Australia’s great playwrights, but where Katz’s play made smart, bold choices, Going Down plays it safe. It makes fun of soft targets and does not dig into the dense subject matter that the main character – and the writer - is trying to avoid.

And, yes, even if that is part of the point, it fell dramatically and comedically flat for me.

Friday, 18 May 2018

The Bleeding Tree by Angus Cerini - Arts Centre Melbourne

The cast of The Bleeding Tree
Photo by Elesa Kurtz

A steep patterned uneven floor descends and ascends into the black void. No one is prepared for the deafening crack of a rifle shot that echoes through the farmhouse. A mother and her two daughters appear from the darkness; husband and father lying dead at their feet. A bullet through the neck.

Our three narrators loom above us, angry and defiant, shouting at the corpse of the man who abused them. They are glad to be free of him. But this story doesn’t feel triumphant; it’s steeped in fear and dread and a town closing in around them.

Mother and daughters must work together to get rid of the body and protect each other when other townsfolk show up, worried about the kind of man we so often hear described in the media as a “good bloke”. This small town feels complicit in the cycle of abuse that this gunshot has fixed for now.

Angus Cerini’s The Bleeding Tree is darkly poetic in its language, crafting a fable of sorts. Its reaction and reflection on domestic abuse is visceral without feeling exploitative. The violence is off-stage and alluded to. This story is about how these women cope in the aftermath and we are witnesses to their stories and experiences; we are listening when, in reality, so many victims of domestic violence aren’t listened to.

The show, first produced at Griffin Theatre in Sydney, is intense from gunshot to fade out and I can only imagine how that would have been magnified in its original, intimate space.

Lee Lewis’ direction is sharp and clear and simple. The sloping stage (design by Renee Mulder) is effective in keeping the characters and the audience teetering on the edge; almost but not quite off-balance. The lighting design by Verity Hampton is precise; the characters are held in an oppressive cocoon of blackness and we are left to imagine the world pressing in around them.

Cerini’s text is lyrical and compelling and refuses to hold your hand; neither for the audience’s benefit or the actors themselves. The cast, led by Paula Arundell, is extraordinary. Arundell’s performance is a mix of coarse defiance as mother and masculine bravado as the men who come to the farm, looking for her husband – last seen stumbling out of the local pub.

Sophie Ross and Brenna Harding (new to this remount of the production) are incredibly good as the daughters, swinging wildly between being glad their father is dead, and worried for their wondering how they are going to get rid of the body.

There are moments of grotesque humour scattered throughout this lean, piercing seventy-five-minute play, allowing some relief to an audience that might have been looking for a way out of the story they were watching. I laughed less than most, overwhelmed by these women’s pain, emotionally gutted by their circumstance and enraptured by a show that edged close to perfection.

Thursday, 10 May 2018

BLISS by Tom Wright, based on the novel by Peter Carey - Malthouse

Toby Truslove & Anna Sampson in Bliss
Photo: Pia Johnson
Harry Joy is dead but not for long. He’s quickly revived into a new life, one that resembles Hell or an advertising company pitch meeting. Or maybe it was like that all along?

Based on Peter Carey’s debut novel from 1981, playwright Tom Wright and director Matthew Lutton have teamed up again – after Picnic at Hanging Rock – to adapt a classic Australian book to the Malthouse stage.

But where Picnic was sleek, sharp and focused, Bliss is leaden and long.

The early introductory scenes felt like Wright and Lutton were aiming for a poetic companion piece to their Gothic melodrama, with interlocking monologues picking apart the kind of Australia that is only reminisced about. Bliss is set in the 1980s, in the suburbs of Sydney. The costumes allude to the decade without being a parody of it. The local references evoke the era.

As Harry stumbles through this newly recognised Hellish existence, we’re treated to some wryly amusing meta-theatrical nonsense; he thinks his family are actors and he’s trapped on a revolving set. But embracing a Brechtian approach to Harry’s new life doesn’t gain the production much after a while. The trouble with Harry is – he and his family are hard to like. And their stories are mostly flat.

Which is a pity, because Lutton has assembled an exceptional cast to bring the Joy family and others to life. Toby Truslove brings a kind of dignity to Harry that is at odds with his wife Bettina’s wish that he had stayed dead. Amber McMahon is wild as Harry’s wife, injecting much energy each time she steals the spotlight.

Wright’s approach to the material seems to regard the original text with such reverence, for much of the three-hour running time it felt like the actors were reading the book to me, suggesting that I should have just read it.

There are moments of satire in this show but they are not sustained or built upon. I worried for Harry’s well-being for a while and then I stopped. I wanted something more for his family and then I found it difficult to care.

Late in the play, I was wondering how the rest of the audience was doing. I was concerned for them. I looked around, thinking about that regular criticism of critics – you hated it, but what did the rest of the audience think? I didn’t do a poll, but I did note that several people didn't return after interval and that for a supposed comedy, there was only a scattering of laughs the whole night.

I got some food stuck in my throat at dinner before I saw Bliss. Maybe I died and woke up, much like Harry Joy, in Hell. The only way for him to resolve his dilemma was to die again. At least I got to get up and leave the theatre.



The cast of Bliss
Photo: Pia Johnson