On spring theatre

With arms covered in running colours and a voice as chilling as home invasion the young man began a dialogue of suburban nihilism. A second young man responded. Their conversation ranged from the art of discarding partners to dealing with partners who did the discarding; the aesthetics and costs of tattooing; the problems watch-house policemen had encountered in cataloguing Speaker One’s tattoos when he was booked in; the story of the night before when Speaker Two hit another young man, then explained his action to an angry brother who ended up quite understanding that his sibling had “asked for it”; alcohol and alcohol consumption; the relations of Speaker One with his three-year-old daughter living with a female discard; the inability of Speaker Two to deal with his dumping by his previous partner. The bus trip lasted twelve minutes and cost $2.20. The mini-drama was a bonus.

Ninety lasted ninety minutes and cost fifty-plus dollars. The new play by Joanna Murray-Smith was a Melbourne Theatre Company production at the Fairfax Studio. A discarded wife had begged her ex-husband (no visible tattoos) to spend ninety minutes with her before flying away, first-class, to join soon-to-be-second wife in Paris, France. It was played in the round with a simple setting on a revolve which slowly turned during the play. On the background wall some dozens of small empty picture frames had been hung together. The two members of the cast were Melinda Butel and Kim Gyngell, direction by Simon Phillips.

The matinee audience was old to very old. Old means having lived through the reigns of Packers III, II and I. Very old means remembering civility, or thinking you do. On the opposite side of the stage were half a dozen young people and their teachers. They laughed at the play’s crude sexual language. Strange, when they hear so much off-stage, that they still should find it remarkable on-stage. Near me a youngish and stylish woman brought out a notebook and pen, possibly a student.

Around the fifty-minute mark the ex-husband wanted to leave, and so did I.

Murray-Smith writes well. The play is full of clever lines but there were too many and they never went anywhere. The characters were modern and affluent. The on-stage world was Manhattan on the Yarra. The audience, almost entirely female, laughed at the cleverness and snapped up the jokes almost before the actors had finished speaking.

Sometimes the young intelligentsia moans about older theatre audiences. They count the grey hairs on the female cohorts of seat buyers and are offended because they are old. They are indifferent to the fact that they are witnessing group outings by The Female Eunuch’s sisters. The play dealt with love and divorce and the audience could probably have instructed the playwright on the subject.

She was a painting restorer, he a successful international actor with his chauffeur-driven car waiting outside to whisk him away at the end of the surrendered ninety minutes. The chauffeur was reading Proust—something that since the creation of the world has never been known to happen outside plays or Melbourne novels. In this complacent and show-off script the characters talked about food, property, holiday destinations, foreign travel, restaurants, education, movies, books and writers, painters. Murray-Smith had turned the Saturday Age into a play. There was even an entry from the death column, the earlier demise of the couple’s child, and it ended in the classified advertisements with a grief counselling session.

Butel’s character was overloaded with clever ABC arts show comments—desperate attempts to offend when you know no one is watching or cares. Plot was replaced by cookery, character delineated by cuisine. He discussed eating or not eating first-class food on international flights as a sign of real exclusiveness. She shared her dreams of stuffed zucchinis, chicken focaccia and Melbourne restaurants, Titanic passengers feasting under the shadow of an approaching financial iceberg.

A ninety-minute play with a Maggie Beer script is ninety minutes too long. I really don’t care that he liked pecan pie and didn’t like snow peas. The last time I thought seriously about food was to wonder if shopping centre doughnuts have gotten smaller since November 2007. The play was supposed to be about the washing up of a marriage but never got out of the dining room.

A foyer notice promised nudity. This turned out to be the display of a set of clean and well-cared-for forty-something female breasts. Not so much erotic as a reminder to the audience to confirm their mammogram appointments. Though smoking was mentioned, and a box of cigarettes did appear, no actual smoking took place.

Kim Gyngell is familiar from films and television’s Comedy Company. His face is etched for comedy—clown craggy and worn, confused and eternally hopeful. This Fitzroy Tony Hancock was never the script’s successful Hollywood actor bonking famous actresses. A pawn in this mature-age chick play, he moved through the dull regions of wordy women’s business occupying a character that was written to be never anything more than a caricature male. Murray-Smith may understand women, and perhaps there are creatures as self-centred and irritating as this one, but the man was wrong. Anyone encountering a dud like this would have returned him for a refund. At play’s end, the excuse was remembrance of the dead baby daughter, he rose to tears and produced copious moisture from all facial orifices. Competent stagecraft but tiresome and girly. The desperate effort to bring the play to a dramatic end was untrue, sentimental and mawkish: a fatal flaw in its construction. As the tears flowed the lights came on in the wall of picture frames. In each one was a family photo. It must have taken much time to construct. It was pointless decoration, a distraction from Gyngell, and a wrong note by director Simon Phillips.

After ninety minutes the play ended on schedule. It was warmly received and had a standing ovation of one. By the way, the perhaps-student sitting near me with her open notebook turned out to be the author.

Free in Melbourne on a spring afternoon, I went walking. Last time in Melbourne was mid-winter and the place was dirty and dull. It had recovered. In the capital of black I noticed an ecotourism travel company called Extragreen Holidays. Their advertising sign had the company name emblazoned across a very big jumbo jet.

The bookshops were depressing. Once I would have taken their displays for granted. Now, with the internet, I know how narrow-minded their selections are. Depressingly Left. Single-mindedly Left. At the posh bookshop at the top of Bourke Street, you know the one, I went to the counter with the literary magazines feeling as if I was asking for pornography. No, whatever else is under the counter, they don’t stock Quadrant.

That evening I went to see Meow Meow at the Malthouse. If the name makes you think of a French chanteuse in that film with what’s-his-name you have the general idea. Meow Meow is the creation of actress Melissa Madden Gray. She performs hard-edge, confronting cabaret—says the publicity. The performance was called Vamp. If Meow Meow is eurotrash it’s an Australian version—well showered and comfortably upholstered. The stage setting was seedy and the props, the lower half of department-store male dummies and a severed John the Baptist head, were borrowings from the Myer windows plus red paint.

Vamp referenced women stars and Oscar Wilde’s Salome; a homage to the vamp. Reviews warned about Meow Meow’s up-close contact with the audience. I was expecting a defrosted Ute Lemper, but the performer turned out to be as decadent-not as Sally Bowles.

When references to the Weimar Republic and names like Louise Brooks, Pola Negri or Alla Nazimova are juggled by actors and critics they tend to get rather silly and wholly pretentious. In the program, very reasonably priced at $2, was a vamp article by a Berkeley professor named Mel Gordon. It seemed a well-over- the-top satire about the “vixen”, “the alluring phallic-woman”, “the exotic Other”, and “a succubus who required male sperm for her very survival”. Unfortunately he was being serious.

Publicity stills show Meow Meow lying luxuriously on her back exhaling cigarette smoke. There was certainly a cigarette in her performance but the poor clenched thing was a prop and remained unsmoked. The singing was in French, German and English; it was loud. Bites out of Wilde’s Salome were undigested. The audience loved her. Appeals for victims to assist in her excesses, carried shoulder high and twisted into swastika shape, found men pushing to get on-stage. When she was fitted with a harness and hauled into space to swing in brightly-lit smoke above the heads of the audience it was old-time Bourke Street Tivoli. The vamps lived off camp seriousness and inhaled; Meow Meow was terribly funny and never ever lit up.

The act plays well internationally on the arts festival circuit as postmodern cabaret—a negative criticism—but has the potential to please more demanding popular audiences. With Meow Meow, Madden Gray’s crowd-pleasing talents are hidden behind drama school semester papers and dull music choices. The characterisation needs Marx (Groucho), not vamps, and a modern S.J. Perelman, not Mel Gordon the theatre guru from Berkeley or this fairly ordinary staging by director Michael Kantor.

The next morning I walked down to Délifrance for coffee and croissant. It was a quiet pleasant morning. I stepped outside to walk down to the river. Yards away from where I had been sitting there had been a fatal traffic accident. The roads were closed, traffic diverted. Over the next days it was the thought of the stranger who died on a spring morning below a Crazy John’s sign which came back to me. 

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