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.

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