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REVIEW: Australian Realness by Zoey Dawson

Emily Goddard in Australian Realness
Photo: Pia Johnson

North Fitzroy, Melbourne. Christmas. 1997.

Mum is carrying a load of groceries and a box filled with Christmas presents, while dad plays around with his latest creation – the puppet of a baby. Daughter is heavily pregnant and asleep on the couch, while her parents reminisce about the lives they had before children and a mortgage. Soon, their Daughter’s partner arrives – a woman and a dock worker. Then their Son strides in, all suited up, wheeling and dealing on his brick of a mobile phone.

A suburban family home at Christmas is a ripe location for drama, even in the hands of a nascent writer; everyone has been there and we all know what tensions lie beneath. Mum wants everything to be perfect. Dad wants to help out, but has a project of his own that needs attending to. And the kids, well, they have their own lives now and they can’t always see or know what’s going on with Mum and Dad now.

Playwright Zoey Dawson has made her name on the independent stages of Melbourne as a writer who grapples with writing; she’s a theatre-maker who tackles the making of theatre head-on. The Unspoken Word is Joe was ostensibly a reading of her new play that descended into chaos, as the underlying tensions between the actors on the stage bled into the proceedings. Conviction (my review) was about Zoey not knowing what to write next, but it also tackled colonial history and the role of women in society throughout time.

Zoey isn’t literally in Australian Realness but her concerns are still there. This is another theatrical experiment, where reality starts to fall away, the audience loses focus and the play we think we’re watching isn’t what we are watching at all.

Mum (Linda Cropper) & Dad (Greg Stone)
Photo: Pia Johnson
Mum and Dad aren’t as well off as they pretend to be; poets and puppet makers don’t earn much money. Mum is still in denial, though. She wants a bigger tree and to drink Moet Chandon. Dad is concerned about the changing face of the suburb, but we aren’t sure if he’s worried about the apartment block next door or the Hogan family living in his back shed.

Kerry, Gary and son Jason, aren’t the kind of people our central family would normally associate with. Kerry drinks too much, Gary is a labourer and Jason spends his dole money on drugs. They are a darkly comical mirror to the family we feel comfortable with – and theatrical doubling brings this home with enjoyable comic madness.

Linda Cropper as Mum excuses herself to get ready for Christmas and re-appears as Kerry, demanding to get her slab of VB back. Cropper’s dual performances are electric – and when she appears as a third character later, we know we’re in the hands of an acting legend. She’s having a ball and so are we.

Greg Stone gets to be Dad and Gary, a study in contrasts of men who are good with their hands but less good with their wives or their emotions. Andre de Vanny’s corporate Son feels a bit like a stock character until he changes into his dad’s short shorts, but he brings a thrilling buzz to the stage as drugged out Jason, who breakdances for cash and knows just how to dodge his dad’s questions and the back of his hand.

Trapped at the centre of this waking nightmare (she dreams of her dystopic future early on in the play) is Emily Goddard as the Daughter, who must come to terms with the fact her Partner has just lost her job, her parents aren’t as progressive as she’d like and there just isn’t an easy way to transition from her dream of being an artist to a stay-at-home mother.

Goddard is dragged through the wringer, the only actor who plays a single character throughout the play. And the audience is pulled along with her, watching her family and her life fall apart, one prop and piece of set at a time. A lot is asked of Goddard in this part and she’s more than a match for the text and the production, running the gamut from gentle family comedy to bleak disaster film.

Late in the play, the Daughter is confronted by the subject of an art piece she created years before. She knows nothing about the subject and does nothing to learn more about this woman. It’s not enough that suburban Australians don’t know their neighbours anymore, they don’t care to know them and choose to commodify them in their art.

Australian Realness alludes toward a kind of David Williamson-esque or Joanna Murray-Smith-type naturalism at the beginning only to pull the rug out as Dawson has done throughout her career. The realness isn’t embodied here in witticisms about middle-class ennui, it’s blasted into our minds by watching our distance from each other destroy our very existence.

It’s a very Zoey Dawson play about the kinds of plays Zoey Dawson would never write and her family would never see. It’s thrilling and chaotic; challenging, silly and full of bravura performances. Every minor misstep, like an over-reliance on an ironic laugh track, is made up for in a clear-eyed deconstruction of the myths we tell ourselves about how we are better than the family next door.

And it’s about how theatre that affirms our beliefs can be much more dangerous than the kind that challenges us.

Australian Realness is on at the Malthouse until September 8th.

Linda Cropper as Kerry Hogan
in Australian Realness
Photo: Pia Johnson

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