It’s a very old question, and certainly one that theatre makers, producers and practitioners in Australia and abroad have been asking, and feeling nervous about, for decades: what is it that audiences want from theatre? Perhaps more accurately, what is it that audiences will pay for? Is it a story, a narrative which they can follow, laugh with, become immersed in and relate back to their own lives? Is it an experience, intellectual, emotional, visceral or otherwise? The big-name actors, the auteur directors? Is it a cultural and social event? Of course, in Australia, without same level of government support and general mainstream interest in theatre, it’s a more pertinent question than, say, in the United Kingdom; there’s only so much that can be catered for, for so many people, at the one time. But with less money, fewer venues, and smaller audiences, you could be forgiven for thinking that the richness and diversity of theatre in Melbourne was far less than it actually is. There’s reason to be optimistic: Melbourne Fringe Festival is upon us, the main-stage seasons of Malthouse and MTC are in full swing, and the International Arts Festival is around the corner. It is the theatre season and spectators, regardless of their theatrical dispositions, are being treated across the spectrum. No better is this illustrated, perhaps, than in the concurrent productions of Melbourne Theatre Company’s drawing-room dramedy God of Carnage and Declan Greene and Susie Dee’s seething satire A Black Joy.
I sit at the part of the spectrum as someone who, at the very least, wants to be stimulated, irrespective of how successful the piece is on the whole. I don’t want to be comforted or consoled with theatre, and I don’t want to sit in a big space squinting, attempting to watch something that could be done at least a hundred-times better on a TV screen with close-ups, soundtracks, camera pans and montage sequences. I like my theatre theatrical, thank you very much; you can save the rest for a night in with the remote control. So perhaps it shouldn’t have surprised me how much I disliked God of Carnage, Christopher Hampton’s translation of Yasmina Reza’s Tony Award winning play, directed here by Peter Evans with a cast including Pamela Rabe and Hugo Weaving. Taking my seat in the Playhouse and realising that the set, a scarily-imposing French calendar, wasn’t likely changing or going anywhere for at least ninety minutes, I took a few breaths and reassured myself. I knew that I was expecting a particular type of talking-heads theatre for a particular, and very profitable, cross-section of the theatre-going public; that I should keep an open mind (Tony-Award winning after all!) and try and take whatever I could from it. But that knowledge was not enough to keep me from shuffling, twitching, tugging my hair, chewing my tongue and finally fuming. I got just the kind of visceral reaction that I had considered impossible from Melbourne Theatre Company shows. Alas, for all the wrong reasons.
That is not to fault this production, which I can appreciate. It is very solidly, and delicately, directed by Evans, who gets some terrific performances from his cast; Rabe and Geoff Morell, Weaving and Natasha Herbert playing French middle-class and upper-middle-class middle-aged couples respectively, are engaging performers and at times very funny to watch. The physical comedy occasionally works and there’s a few chuckles to be had; particularly in the wonderfully prolonged vomit scene. But it’s all so spick, squeaky-clean and slick; it reminded me somewhat of the approach that Simon Philips took to Tracey Letts’ much darker, but similarly made-for-broadway, August: Osage County earlier in the year. It’s all adequately lit and sounded and costumed, without any kind of interesting or dominant design feature (aside from that precarious, pointless calendar) or anything, really, to detract from the text. Evans has opted for a very inoffensive and efficient enactment of Reza’s script, which also happens to be the biggest problem.
Not that there is much that he could have done with it, really. The flimsy set-up sees the two couples predictably negotiating, then arguing, about an altercation between their sons at school. There’s something profoundly disturbing about violence involving children and the way in which a society responds to it – as Christos Tsiolkas recently explored in The Slap – but here, it’s glossed over and only touched on in metaphorical terms, adding the only thread to an otherwise formless structure. The couples throw things at each other, divide down gender lines and support and subvert one and other, they get drunk and the rich(er) couple attempt to leave at least six or seven times. There’s also an unbelievably implausible, ridiculous subplot or two thrown in about the ethics of pharmaceutical corporations and the moral responsibilities that we have to people in developing countries. There is nothing remotely surprising, or challenging, or even attention-commanding about what unfolds in God of Carnage; the characters are so nauseatingly one-dimensional, narcissistic and bourgeois, and their dramas are absolutely trivial. They seem to spend the whole play going to great lengths to be sure that they don’t actually do anything. Except vomit. And yes, the vomiting is a definite highlight.
What Reza attempts to say about the cyclical nature of violence, the repetition of taught / learnt behaviour, conflict resolution and the way in which dysfunctional couples raise their children is said without a whiff of freshness, irony, or depth. It’s an unashamedly unsophisticated, clichéd and easily-forgotten piece of domestic fluff; when it aspires to something bigger in its ‘serious’ moments, it falls flat on its face. Ultimately shallow as a drama and nowhere near self-aware enough to be a satire, God of Carnage presents an easy night out for the particular Melbourne Theatre Company constituency that it panders to – and it panders very specifically, and very capably. But there’s no hiding that this is a good production of a disappointing, half-thought of a play.
What may be the polar opposite of the God of Carnage brand of theatre, and yet what I believe will similarly not struggle too hard to find an audience, is the much-anticipated second collaboration (after Union House Theatre’s Rageboy in 2006) between camp / crass craftsman Declan Greene and Susie Dee – A Black Joy. We last saw Dee in the fantastic Wretch and Greene has already established a name for himself with his theatre company Sisters Grimm, but this play, using the fortyfivedownstairs space for the Melbourne Fringe Festival, marks an important point of departure for him. While there is no doubt that Sisters Grimm have staged some fantastically glamorous, exploitative, hilariously overblown and cinematically derivative shows, and will continue to do so, A Black Joy, recipient of an R.E. Ross Trust Award, sees Greene moving on his own to stake out territory as an important, and unique, voice in contemporary Australian playwriting. It’s a play that echoes the work of Sisters Grimm in many ways, and also moves in a darker, more poetic, direction.
A Black Joy is a blackly humorous exploration of consumption, celebrity, ambition and desire, fusing high-camp thrills and melodrama with the bite of suburban satire. Plain and overlooked Bette Davis (Carole Patullo) feeds and cleans her morbidly overweight, insatiably hungry boyfriend, John Candy (Tom Considine), whose feet are turning gangrenous and rotten under his huge folds of flesh. Davis’ daughter, Dakota Fanning (Miriam Glaser), a one-time TV celebrity as a result of very-publicised battle with leukaemia and musical theatre fanatic, is seeking the lead role in her school production of Hello Dolly! but instead finds herself falling for Corey Haim (Sisters Grimm co-collaborator Ash Flanders), an insecure neo-Nazi nerd who perversely crank-calls his mother for self-esteem. Things are stranger still at Haim’s home; his mother, Diane Keaton (Anne Browning), a depressed and unstable pill-popping housewife, starts a rigorous training routine to protect herself from the perceived imminent threat of her lesbian cleaner. His father, Joseph Cotton (Chris Bunsworth), eerily obsessed with the plight of minke whales, has a slightly more concerning ethical dilemma in his basement; an unnamed starlet (Megan Twycross) whom he plans on starving, murdering and disposing of in the sea.
If it sounds a little chaotic, the celebrity names a bit confusing and the whole thing a lot disturbing, it is. This is not theatre for the faint-hearted or the easily-offended; indeed, Dee’s production (moodily lit by Katie Sfetkidis and accompanied, live on cello, by Alastair Watts) does not shy away from the gross or gratuitous moments, and nor does it attempt to soften the barbs of Greene’s writing. This is a good thing, as A Black Joy is also incredibly funny and wonderfully constructed; the tone of the piece sits somewhere between vintage John Waters and The Silence of the Lambs on speed. The arcs of these simultaneously revolting and curiously endearing characters, with fantastic performances from Tom Considine, Anne Browning and Carole Patullo in particular, are strongly drawn. And effectively staged in the round, it’s an exhilarating experience as the drama shifts between their stories, and ultimately descends into an unremittingly black spiral of betrayal, torture and murder. Exhilirating, exhausting, unpredictable and utterly worth it; this is impressive, highly theatrical stuff which looks and sounds fantastic, and Dee keeps it all moving at a cracking pace.
With that said, there is a wrestle between the darkness, energy and the humour of the script which can, at times, feel a little unbalanced and awkward – as if the play might not always be certain in which direction it is wanting to go, or what it is that it is wanting to say. An ambiguous storyline about survivors in a plane crash, although assisted by a beautiful video projection design by Nick Verso, is also not as skilfully integrated into the overarching narrative as the other stories.
But these are ultimately minor concerns. The quality of the writing, direction, design and performances make A Black Joy an unsettling, unnerving and still very, very, enjoyable stand-out for the Melbourne Fringe this year. It’s a fabulously taut, twisted nightmare and a taste of things to come.
God of Carnage runs until October 3, Arts Centre Playhouse, http://www.mtc.com.au/
A Black Joy runs until October 4, fortyfivedownstairs, http://www.fortyfivedownstairs.com