The Daylight Atheist ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, June 22, 2004

The Daylight Atheist

The Daylight Atheist by Tom Scott, directed by Peter Evans, with Richard Piper. Melbourne Theatre Company, Fairfax Studio, Victorian Arts Centre. June 11 to July 24.

Let me say, before anything else, that I enjoyed A Daylight Atheist. But I feared I would not. A two hour monologue is a gruelling test of both writer and actor. And also, often, of an audience. In this most challenging of theatrical forms, theatre is stripped down to its basic elements: there is literally nothing to hide behind and, as in standup comedy, disaster lurks a mere yawn away.

And being bored in the theatre rivals no other artistic experience, except possibly poetry readings. I think this is partly due to an acute embarrassment which afflicts all those present. A bad film is all past tense, but a bad play is happening right in front of you, with all the attendent feelings of complicity, pity, anger and (especially if you've paid for your tickets) existential absurdity and gloom.

The Daylight Atheist touches on themes now very familiar through Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes or Roddy Doyle's Barrytown books or, more interestingly, in the work of Seamus Deane: Irish poverty, brutal fathers, alcoholism, traumatised childhoods, and so on. I've watched the success of this kind of story with a little scepticism, since it can shade so easily into a kind of glazed sentiment about the warm-hearted, suffering, loveable Irish.

You can perhaps see why the phrases "two hour monologue" and "Irish raconteur" might summon within me a doom-laden sense of impending collision with the word "boredom" . I went to see The Daylight Atheist with more than the usual preparedness for disappointment. Well, I was wrong.

As an exercise in unobtrusive writerly skill, The Daylight Atheist is exemplary. New Zealand writer Tom Scott has created a highly contrived play without the least sense of contrivance: the sense of reality on stage is at once fluid, imaginative, subtle and cogent. And he has a good line in mordant, surreal wit. Perhaps a career in political satire is an excellent training ground for theatre, an inoculation against the kinds of dishonesty which produce sentimentality. In any case, I can see why it was a hit in New Zealand. The Daylight Atheist is popular, mainstream theatre and never tests its audience too cruelly but, on the other hand, it is never patronising. It is a portrayal, ultimately, of a dreadful, self-created loneliness: the "terrible burden of the self".

It is the story of Dan Moffat, a man who reveals himself as a right bastard: an unrepentent alcoholic, neglectful of his family when he is not being downright sadistic, self-pitying, egocentric, violent and incapable of introspection. Despite this - and given what he reveals, this is a considerable feat - it is impossible not to feel empathy for him, even at times to like him. The portrayal of Moffat is a knife-edge balancing act which exposes the character's flaws without either dehumanising him or excusing his actions.The play avoids easy moralising and sentiment, partly through the safety valve of humour, but also because it is unafraid of being serious.

Richard Piper as Dan Moffat rises to meet the demands of the script. And they are considerable: he is on stage for almost two hours, switching between pathos, hilarity and brutality. The script calls for him to play all the characters in his stories: his wife Dingbat, his son Egghead (part of his cruelty is that neither of them are ever given the courtesy of their proper names), his Maori friend Jack, and once, in a comic highlight, two entire soccer teams, the high school athsmatics and the local lunatic asylum. There are moments of genuine pathos, as when Moffat describes the funeral of the only human being he seems to have ever loved, his work-mate Jack. (He reads a very fine poem: if it is Scott's, I'm impressed. Sometimes the ideas of poetry I encounter in theatre make me cringe. But this is merely an aside.)

The technical demands alone are considerable, but virtuosity is only the beginning of what's required. The first few minutes of the performance I saw indicated how easily this piece could dissolve into empty caricature. But once Piper warmed up, it was one of those occasions where an actor seems to be possessed, and some kind of magic seems to occur before your eyes. I've seen Richard Piper on stage many times, but I've never seen his face and physicality so transformed. It's a compelling performance.

Christina Smith's set, a bedroom in an advanced state of chaos and disrepair, is, like the script itself, less realistic and more theatrical than it first seems. I always wonder about cluttered, realistic sets, but for once it seemed appropriate. Piper rummages among the mess, finding a children's tricycle, a spade, a helmet, a coat, which become props for his stories. I liked the simplicity of Peter Evans' direction; like the script, its skill was unobstrusive. To my ear, there could have been a little more silence in its orchestration: on occasion the transition from, say, a state of pathos to a joke felt rushed and glossed over, perhaps out of a fear of losing the audience's attention. Given that the audience was riveted, it could have easily afforded this kind of variation in its rhythms.

Without it ever being explicit, or described from any viewpoint except Dan Moffat's self-interested narration, the play calls up a shadow narrative: the story of the family he abuses. His references to his wife and children are brutal and dismissive, and he very seldom (if at all) shows remorse for his actions. But when, for example, he speaks of driving home through a night full of rain and notices his wife cycling to a parent-teacher meeting, a sight which causes him only a moment's puzzlement, it opens up the appalling existence he has forced on his family. The misery he has caused and his consequent self-loathing pullulates underneath, and is tacitly acknowledged in his meek acceptance of his family's withdrawal from him. He protects himself from self-knowledge with a virulent sense of humour - what Richard Eyre, speaking of his own father, describes as the psychopath's fondness for practical jokes - and a resentful self-pity. The pity the play invites for Dan Moffat, however, is of an entirely different and less forgiving kind.

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