Life without the lot

Life Without Me by Daniel Keene played at the Sumner Theatre from 9 October to 21 November.
Songs for Nobodies by Joanna Murray-Smith played at the Fairfax Studio, the Arts Centre, from 5 November to 23 December. Season extended.

Critical overhyping is not the way to lure audiences into our theatres. Peter Craven in the Australian: “Daniel Keene seems to be taking Melbourne by storm. The recent Melbourne Theatre Company production of his Life Without Me left most contemporary playwriting for dead and featured an extraordinary performance by Kerry Walker.” Some storm.

Daniel Keene’s Life Without Me was commissioned by the Melbourne Theatre Company and played in their newish Sumner Theatre in October and November. On a wet Saturday in mid-November there were a lot of empty seats. The play had been marketed with a photo of a green maze with four bemused actors littered in it and on it. The customary author flattery was included in the sell: “For years, in his series of short, sharp masterpieces, Daniel Keene has given a poetic voice to the marginalised and neglected.” In his famously good dirty book, My Life and Loves, Frank Harris asked, “Why are actors, like politicians, always overpraised?” Add Australian writers to the mixture and the observation is as pertinent as ever. 

The Sumner set was a deliberately dull naturalistic hotel foyer which ran right across the wide stage. It had a low ceiling and presented itself as an interesting long narrow cinemascope-shaped box. There was a reception desk, an office window, a cigarette machine, a lift, a freestanding fish tank, chairs, and a revolving door through which we could see rain falling. As the audience came in, actor Robert Menzies was walking about the stage. He looked slept in, rumpled and odd. He stared towards us. Finding his seat in the third row a man gave him a cheery wave, but he didn’t respond. Set and characterisation were familiar to us before the play began. Without a word being uttered there was a horrible suspicion that Keene was heading into Fawlty Towers territory or, given the gurgling prose in the program, some pretentious outpost of absurdism. He was. 

House lights down, stage lights up and Robert Menzies did more odd things. A crash of thunder and wet, luggage-carrying Greg Stone flung himself through the revolving doors into the foyer. He was, for some reason, wanting to leave “The City”, and for some reason he couldn’t. This was a dated and boring revelation, for theatre audiences have been here before. Robert Menzies, revealed to be the hotel manager, made difficulties about renting him a room. Silly walk gave way to silly talk. There was time-wasting dialogue about whether the reluctant guest could have a room on one side of the building or the other, whether these rooms had views or not. He had to sign the register but the manager didn’t have a pen. The customer had a pencil. This could be erased, said the manager. It would leave an impression on the blank paper if he pushed hard when he signed, and the erased writing would be revealed if you scribbled across the page, said the customer. 

The MTC promoted the play as having a “beautiful and philosophical script”. This idea of comedy was not Ionesco or Beckett but dated sitcom material begging for canned laughter, a flickering black-and-white television screen and, please God, a prominent knob to click it off. Going nowhere, it quickly became tedious and annoying. The lift was malfunctioning, so naturally the guest took the lift and became stuck. Ha-ha. The manager made some toast (off stage). He burnt that toast. Ha-ha. Other people came on stage. Actor Brian Lipson carried in suitcases of hotel linen samples. He had an appointment, no he hadn’t. Ha- ha. He recognised a guest, actress Deidre Rubenstein, she recognised him, no they didn’t. Ha-ha. Actress Kerry Walker, the manager’s mother, came in but wasn’t supposed to be there. She also thought her dead husband wasn’t dead. Ha-ha. A young couple arrived, etc. There were occasional jokes that worked; they were not memorable. It was poor, dull and boring because the script was bad. This was supposed to have taken Melbourne by storm? It was only a small local depression. 

Age reviewer Cameron Woodhead was also running on cliché: 

Everything Keene’s characters say or do ricochets against boundaries imposed by speech and performance. Alive to the paradox of language—how each act of self-expression is somehow an act of self-mutilation—Keene’s dialogue is crafted to sound at once overheard and translated, inevitable and ephemeral, familiar yet strange, timeless and utterly contemporary. It is translated, perhaps, but from the language of the mind, with a poet’s ear for the imperfect filters that strain its course to the tongue.

He also called it “Keene’s masterpiece”. In Australia this overpraising and pretentious critical vocabulary misery is the norm. A babble-afflicted elite culture inept at describing something as simple and serious as a theatre performance is in deep trouble. Yet reviewing the present state of Australian theatre, one critic came to the conclusion that it is not the writers or the players who are at fault but the audience. John McCallum in the Australian: “There is a type of theatre-goer who complains all the time and who does so much damage. I know our theatres need to pay attention to the box office, but really, some people are simply dreadful.” The critical audience is “simply dreadful”? He is describing people who do care about the theatre, and take what they see seriously. Unfortunately, too many theatre makers would probably agree with him.

In the real world the carpenters made a good functioning set, the lights went on and off at the right time, the actors did not walk into each other and knew their words—but how dull those words were. The weak links in this professional production were the writer, Daniel Keene, and the director, Peter Evans. Both of them took this slight piece far too seriously. Keene’s writing is heavy-handed and pretentious. That the foyer was “une salle des pas perdus came to us in French, and with a translation. If he really wanted to show off his foreign-language skills he could have tried déjà vu, no translation necessary. The production was punctuated with long meaningless pauses, unnecessary though ideal for audiences to check their watches. The director had confused his Keene with his Beckett, and dragged out a dull annoying performance. 

Daniel Keene was given the opportunity to write a play by the Melbourne Theatre Company. What he produced was an exercise in vacuousness, and they staged it. Again and again our mainstream stages turn the classics into burlesque, present silly unfunny comedy like this, which is supposed to be crowd-pleasing, and prefer poor adaptations to original dramas. As Andrew Upton and Cate Blanchett wrote in their introduction to the 2011 Sydney Theatre Company season: “We love adaptations here at the STC—it is the ideal way to begin the production at the beginning by making a script that is for us right here, now—even though it was written by them folk back there, then.” These confused words are symptoms of a widespread failure of nerve and loss of direction. A further sign of conventionality and reactionary thinking is that when they do try something serious, they pull on stage overcooked Left political tracts. 

I can only tell you what happened in the first wearisome sixty minutes, for having been warned that it played for over two hours, at interval I fled. At the Sumner Theatre it became Play Without Me. In Borders, two ladies passed me talking about a “designer gynaecologist”. Thanks to them, I felt my afternoon wasn’t entirely wasted.

Around the same time I saw an amateur performance of Alan Ayckbourn’s A Chorus of Disapproval in Hobart. Having recently seen the bad film with Anthony Hopkins and Jeremy Irons I was not looking forward to it. It was great. An enjoyable amusing performance. An inexpensive evening of amateur theatre working off a good script was better than an expensive professional performance with a poor script and Ministry of Culture reviews.

Also playing on an MTC stage at the same time was another work by a Melbourne playwright. This one can write. 

Songs for Nobodies by Joanna Murray-Smith was staged in the Fairfax Studio at the Arts Centre. It’s a compact, comfortable space which was ideal for this cabaret-style piece. On a small stage, with four musicians just behind, Bernadette Robinson gave a ninety-minute performance of five monologues with songs: impersonations of Judy Garland, Patsy Cline, Edith Piaf, Billie Holiday and Maria Callas. The monologues were by “nobodies”—women who had come in contact or near contact with the famous stars, and they spoke of this before the songs were presented. 

It didn’t quite hit its mark, largely because of the musical impersonations which left me untouched. I was in a minority. At play’s end the Melbourne ladies were ecstatic and leapt to their feet; though I wasn’t sure if the standing ovation was for Robinson, Murray-Smith, or themselves. They could have bought original recordings at any discount shop for $9.95. If performed by a Sydney drag queen in some obscure setting this would have been the hot theatre ticket, of 1973. Unfortunately, this was 2010, and I’ve had enough of theatre ladies doing Piaf impersonations. No matter how good the performance—and Bernadette Robinson is very good—it’s still revisiting old territory. Some original songs, or less familiar cabaret material, and this would have been outstanding.

In a previous work for Caroline O’Connor, Bombshells, Murray-Smith wrote a similar piece with six monologues. A striking bit of theatre, which educationalists are doing their best to destroy by using it with school students studying VCE English and the theme “Exploring issues of identity and belonging”. In Songs for Nobodies the “nobodies” are a toilet attendant, a theatre usher, a journalist, a librarian, and a nanny. That was three Americans, one English (with French father), and an Irish woman. Perhaps Murray-Smith has her eyes on an international market. I missed an Australian voice. Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads monologues resonate because of the accuracy of the observation. Murray-Smith seemed more to rely on research and tended to be heavy on warm, feel-good phoniness.

The English librarian talked of her French father who read Le Petit Prince to her in her childhood. He had been in the Resistance, was captured by the Germans, but rescued by Piaf from a prison camp. It sounded like a New Idea page filler. The Piaf story led into a rendition of “Non, je ne regrette rien”—which wasn’t a wartime song but only became famous when Piaf sang it in 1960, and it probably has more realistic associations with the paras leaving Algeria in disgrace in the period leading up to independence. The sentimental and romantic monologue mixture was over-sugared. A hard-edged characterisation would have been more truthful than this tricolour coconut ice in its tasteful presentation box.

Joanna Murray-Smith is one of our finest theatre writers, but Songs for Nobodies revisited what she has done in the past: a cabaret confection for a notable performer. Clearly entertaining for a Melbourne audience, it was crowd pleasing enough to have its original season extended for three weeks. But really, it was just Judy and Billie and Edith all over again. Been there, done that. It’s time she surprised us.

Michael Connor is the editor of Quadrant Online.

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