We bloggeroos are a fickle lot – I am getting close to Dame Nellie Melba’s record in the number of times I have declared my imminent/immolate retirement – and then along comes a play/production that can’t be allowed to pass by without comment. I have put aside my Library work for a day, at high risk (not really) coz I saw playwright Melissa Bubnic’s Beached the other night – in the last week of its run. And unlike some other reviewers, I thought it was a classy and engaging gig. On the encounter alone I was impressed enuf to feel I had to put fingers to keyboard. Then I read Kevin Jackson’s forensic demolition job. We had different reactions and I felt that would be an interesting subject to explore. We are a happy bunch of bloggers, Sydney onliners – and often refer to each other’s work in a spirit of goodwill and mutual respect. Encouraging readers to go elsewhere if they are interested in a different (even opposing) response.
PR BLURB: “Arty is huge. Ginormous. Morbidly and grossly obese, he’s in need of a gastric bypass to save his life. At over 400 kilos, he’s the world’s fattest teenager. Arty is also being followed by a reality TV crew. Will he lose the kilos needed to have the op? Will he survive to eat another cream puff? Will Louise, his Pathways-to-Work ofﬁcer, transform his life in ways he never imagined?Unapologetically satiric, Beached is also the moving story of a man imprisoned in his own body. It lays bare the mercenary nature of reality TV, and turns the microscope on society’s insatiable appetite for human misery.Beached won the 2010 Patrick White Playwrights’ Award and was shortlisted for the 2011 Grifﬁn Award. It pairs the razor sharp wit of Melissa Bubnic with the imaginative direction of Shannon Murphy (This Year’s Ashes, Porn.Cake).”
Playwright: Melissa Bubnic; Director: Shannon Murphy; Set and Costume Designer: James Browne; Lighting and AV Designer: Verity Hampson; Sound and AV Designer: Steve Toulmin; Dramaturg: Kit Brookman; Assistant Director: Liz Arday
CAST: Gia Carides, Arka Das, Blake Davis & Kate Mulvany
There’s the PR pitch and a list of the talent involved from Griffin’s own website. Mr Jackson clearly loathed pretty much everything about this play and production, and he goes about saying why (as he always does) with the eye of a specialist in forensics. I have no doubt he meant every word (he never squibs), and I respect Mr Jackson for that. His review of Beached makes for quite a thrilling read. Just how many ways can one theatregoer hate a work? Go here and see! Different responses should be encouraged: no single reviewer is ever entirely right (except in the minds of the most feeble); and a range of views stimulates a richer public conversation.
First up, in reviewing a play, we must remember that each performance is a unique work of art, merely bearing a similarity to the performance the night before, and other evenings yet to come. Then there’s the matter of what each of us brings to the encounter. Meaning: say Mr Jackson and I were there on the same night. It is still possible that our responses would differ.
There is one other factor which, in this case in particular, I think we should consider. And it’s by chance. Mr Jackson, I believe, was there on Opening Night – usually my spot. And it is he who usually slips a week or so later – as I did this time. I have pushed my Library work to one side for couple more days to make mostly one simple but I think important point. Bubnic’s text is, in my view, unusually sophisticated and calls for much more in terms of staging than your average chatty realist new Australian play. For director Shannon Murphy this is her strong suit. Without bringing attention to herself as some kind of heavenly blessed auteur, she can wrangle quite demanding stagings into shape, going well beyond ensuring the words are enunciated ‘brightly’ by her cast.
It would be sad to see this play slip past, recorded as underwhelming, just because however many weeks of rehearsal it got, or number of ‘previews’, it was not ready in time for the reviewers on opening night. It’s happened before. Exhibit A – Phil Motherwell’s Dreamers of the Absolute. Phil who? you say. Dreamers what? you ask. My point exactly. Exhibit B: when are we going to see a fully fleshed out revival of Louis Nowra’s Visions which, under-prepared and under-resourced, brought the fledgling Paris Theatre Company to its knees before the company could even stand up. It was NOT the script’s fault! It just asked for more than the director and cast could deliver on time.
I wouldn’t let off any script/production so lightly. But what I saw a few weeks into the run was a production and performances that had caught up with what the script appeared to call on. It was exciting to see Bubnic’s many unusual authorial demands succeed. How does one present a 400-kilogram character on stage? How do we present his predicament seriously and keep the work entertaining. In the case of Bubnic the writer – a very quick and witty language surface. Once the cast is across this stuff, as they were by the time I got to the show, one could only admire the deftness fleetingly. If Bondi Beach were a comedy act, our heads were up out of the water on occasions for barely a breath, before we were hit by another zinger. Not all one-liners I might add. Just a writer at work who in her bones knows what options and complexities the stage can offer to tingle those in the audience with working minds. And as mentioned above, no-one better to deliver on this front than director Shannon Murphy. She is a ‘mistress’ technician. Her productions are characterised by their 3D clarity.
Even the casting puts you on notice. These are unlikely choices – in particular your average-kid kinda guy, Blake Davies, as ‘Fatso’ (Arthur Arthur). The gap between him (out of the fat-suit in a fantasy dance sequence) and the character entombed in a costume that looks more like a Big Mac than flesh forces you to fill that space with thought. Something a German dude called Brecht once tried. Similarly Gia Carides as the doting mother is accused of being too broad. I thought it took a special sophistication (and a whole load of experience) to get that Westie Bogan mother so right. Remember Bubnic has packaged her core topic (dependency) in the fancy of the Reality TV show. Carides’ ‘enabling’ mother may not have been there to see in all her complexity on opening night. But I saw what I thought was a very fine performance – in particular how what looked on stage as ‘broad’, at the same time appeared convincing , even subtle and tender on the screen. Similarly, Kate Mulvany, particularly as the Centrelink staffer, brought comedy to the stage and at the same time producing a torn and confused mascara-smeared empathy on the screens.
I probably should have said this earlier. While the action is set in Arthur’s bedroom (well he is an immoveable mass - a ‘beached whale’), the TV show comes to him. Encroaching on all sides of Arthur’s place in the world, is a clunky moveable rig of lighting gear. It is this device (conceit?), this staging coup d’etat, that allows actors not called for in a scene to work the live camera feeds. It goes to the place where Benedict Andrews’ cameras in The Maids never even attempted. And what’s really shocking is the fourth and final actor: Arka Das, playing the TV producer is not white. His family origins are likely embedded in the several-thousand-year history of what we like to call the ‘Indian sub-continent’ or London East Enders might call a ‘paki’. There is no reason why he should be ‘white’. The script says nothing about the colour of this character’s skin. No reason for him to be ‘white’ other than is what we are used to. A brilliant example of what Lee Lewis (recently appointed Artistic Director of the Griffin Theatre) meant when she took on Australia’s theatre culture in her Platform Paper “Cross-Racial Casting: Changing the Face of Australia“. Das is as good as anyone else on stage. And the gap that opens up between us and the colour of his skin proffers further terrain for our minds to climb over on a sub-textual mountain range called ‘Being and Otherness’.
I am not giving the play or the production ten out of ten. Mainly because it ends with a whimper when it really needs a bang. I would have exploded that human burger and splattered most of the audience in chicken gizzards if I had been Bubnic the writer-terrorist. Sadly, an unrealistic proposition however appealing. But there’s no dodging the bullet: a play is only as good as its ending. It’s oh so easy to set stuff up. But it’s all about how you bring the doggie home. That said, I write this review as an act of encouragement to Bubnic (keep writing!) and Murphy (keep on directing!). I can see why Mr Jackson responded differently. I respect him for that, and find what he wrote interesting. It certainly helped me tease out a lot of what were mere half-thoughts in my own mind – and put those amorphous shapes to the test of argument. As above!!
Go here – for Chris Hook’s review in the Daily Telegraph. He thinks what I think – just makes it more simple.
Go here – for a review of the Melbourne production
The script of Beached is a particularly idiosyncratic ; and if this work was not ready for opening night, it may well have come across as rather so-so. It could very well have improved with age. What I saw was a very smart script. The way playwright Bubnic found a way to tell her story on stage, I thought, was impressive. A high degree of craft was involved stylistically and structurally. And the surface – the dialogue was smart and glittering with unobtrusive wit – as well as true to its cause. If it had not been smart and glittering on opening night, I can quite understand why a good number of people were under-impressed. And considered the play a bit loopy and ungainly rather than, as I found it, bold and fresh.
It is of course the responsibility of the director to have the production ready for opening night. But few shows ever are and it’s the adrenalin of a first showing which often masks ill-preparedness. So maybe with the degree of difficulty required, director Shannon Murphy may not have quite got it there on time. Seeing now, weeks in, it’s clearly very well directed. And that Shannon Murphy was precisely the right person to take on this ply’s challenges.
Secondly: as mentioned in the official blurb above, Arthur’s life as a fat person and his upcoming operation is the subject of a reality TV show. So we have two screens monitoring the live action. A device put to much better use than in Benedict Andrews’ The Maids. And (here I utterly disagree with Mr Jackson, I thought Zoe Carides mother was absolutely on the money, and her ‘to camera’ sequences were particularly good.
and then as that wears off the feeble bones of the work are laid bare