Review: Furious Mattress ~ theatre notes

Friday, February 26, 2010

Review: Furious Mattress

Furious Mattress is a vastly disconcerting experience. I walked out of it more than usually unsure what I thought. The last time I felt something like this aesthetic dizziness was when I went to see Richard Maxwell’s New York City Players at the 2005 Melbourne Festival. Good Samaritans was a play which my conscious mind told me was of execrable banality, but which alerted something deeper – an unignorable, visceral response – that forced me to reconsider all my previous conceptions about what constitutes “good” theatre.

In Furious Mattress, the writing is superb, the performances admirable, the direction and design excellent. The discombobulation emerges more from the effect of the whole piece, which at first masquerades as a naturalistic play, and which proceeds to juggle gothic, horror, comedy, camp and tragedy, often simultaneously, in ways which not only are unpredictable, but which don’t permit you ever to settle on a way to view it.

It’s clear this apparent mess of styles isn’t simply an inability to decide what kind of play this is, but rather the thing itself. And it’s peculiarly disturbing. It took me a while to shake off the feeling of sick disorientation it inspired, and it certainly gave me some very weird dreams.

Melissa Reeves’s play is loosely based on Australia’s most notorious exorcism case: the 1993 death of Joan Vollmer, who died of heart failure after a three day ritual enacted by her husband Ralph and some associates from a small charismatic Christian group. Mrs Vollmer had been diagnosed as schizophrenic two years before, but her husband saw her behaviour as evidence of demonic possession. After she died, the group prayed for two days in 40 degree heat as her body swelled and decomposed, convinced that God would bring her back to life.

Reeves transforms the bones of these events into a grotesque parable about marriage. Pierce (Robert Menzies) becomes convinced that his wife Else (Kate Kendall) has become possessed, and calls in a church associate Anna (Rita Kalnejais) to help him exorcise her demons. When the exorcism becomes difficult, they call on a young “expert”, former plumber Max (Thomas Wright), who helps them to finish the job and, along the way, Else herself.

Spare, intelligent, unpretentious and bold, Furious Mattress demonstrates that Reeves is one of our most accomplished playwrights. The structure is simple and dramatically sure. The first scene occurs after the catastrophe, with the rest of the play recounting what happened up to that point in a series of brief, carefully turned scenes that rely on vivid contrast to generate an electric unease. In a classic dramatic trope, a new character is introduced in each act, thickening the action as the play progresses.

The play is set in a western Victorian farmhouse which, through Anna Cordingley’s beautiful split-level design and Paul Jackson’s moody lighting, is framed with a gothic theatricality: like the dialogue, it incorporates an attention to domestic detail that brings the extraordinary into the realm of the ordinary. The whole is held together by Jethro Woodward’s score, which incorporates mundane sounds – buzzing flies, household noises – into a soundscape of lyric intensity. In this world, visions of angels and other supernatural events are only what one might expect, as much part of the everyday as Nice biscuits. And things - including its own theatrical conceits - fall apart. The centre doesn’t, cannot hold.

This habituation of psychotic delusion in mundane reality is the faultline through which both the tragedy and comedy erupt. The grotesquerie is elegantly balanced against acutely observed vignettes of domestic minutiae; and as the play progresses, you realise that these small moments of human disconnection are where the true creepiness lies. Maybe the grimmest lines in the whole play are where Pierce gives his reasons for believing his wife is possessed: she is not her “old self”, she looks at him sideways without moving her head, she curls her mouth up in a funny way which she never used to do.

In these and other dialogues, Reeves exposes the dark side of love: the fear of and desire for the stranger who lives within the beloved. At issue is the female body, traditionally in Christianity the site of spiritual corruption: to exorcise the demons, the body must be punished. Yet the real demon, the real act of possession, is the husband who desires his wife to remain as her “old self”, who fears the parts of her that he does not possess and recognise, and who will even kill her – however unwittingly – in order to keep her “safe” in his idea of her.

Tim Maddock gives the play an intelligently disciplined production that shifts surely between its differing registers, from naturalism to over-the-top theatricality, from horror to camp to tragedy. I was surprised how quickly the time went – perhaps because the writing and production always feel very accurate, even if what is happening on stage seems crazy.

And he gets the best out of his cast, who deliver compelling performances. Robert Menzies plays Pierce with an air of bewildered innocence that cuts chillingly against his actions, and Kate Kendall as Else – frightened, defiant, tragically unhappy – is simply excellent. Some of the most exquisitely written scenes are intimate dialogues between these two. Thomas Wright, unrecognisably bleached and clean-shaven, and Rita Kalnejais as the tense Bible-bashing housewife, add to the surreality by playing the everyday surfaces of their characters.

The violence is cartoon – slaps don’t connect and are amplified as whip noises – which contributes to the general sense of disconnected reality, although there’s also a physical awkwardness in some interactions which comes across as undeveloped. These might be better handled as the season progresses. In any case, this is a fascinating piece of theatre, and well worth the seeing, if only because you’re unlikely ever again to see Robert Menzies wrestling a giant rat on stage.

Picture: Kate Kendall, Thomas Wright and Robert Menzies in Furious Mattress. Photo: Jeff Busby

Another version of this review is in today's Australian.

Furious Mattress by Melissa Reeves, directed by Tim Maddock. Set and costumes by Anna Cordingley, lighting design by Paul Jackson, composition and sound design by Jethro Woodward. With Rita Kalnejais, Kate Kendall, Robert Menzies and Thomas Wright. The Malthouse @ The Beckett Theatre, until March 13.


4 Coffins said...

Alison, I'm going to ask the annoying question - you open this review with a mixed impression and finish it with a glowing report... what was it you found so disconcerting?

I only ask because I felt the same way and am trying to put my finger on it. For me, the real event the play is based on gave the comedy a very strange tone. I kept reminding myself that someone has actually died here. And it seemed like some of the decisions took it into camp, over-the-top territory (giant rat?) which perhaps betrayed its subject matter. I'm not sure if it's this that left me with the creepy feeling or the odd-ball combination of styles you describe, or some combination therein

I did love parts of it (Menzies character - gorgeous) but as a whole... a quirky beast and a strange pitch.

p.s Kate Kandall (not Jane)

Alison Croggon said...

God, where did I say Jane?! *Looks* Oh dear. Well, I got her name right most of the time, but that's a strange slip which I will immediately remedy...

It's not at all an annoying question, though it risks excessive navel-gazing... I guess reviewing is the process of sorting out the immediate impressions through an after-the-fact contemplation. At least, that's what I attempt to do. One has to remain true to those first feelings, while at the same time attempting to understand them. My process went like this: wtf? It's crazy! But it's kind of brilliant! But the writing's great! The direction's really tight - but - wtf?! &c &c. And underneath, I really did feel that physical sense of almost nauseous dislocation. I attend to those physical/sensuous responses more than immediate intellectual responses (for good reason - as Rimbaud said, "science is too slow!" and the intellect can fool you.) That's more or less how I approach all art. So for me, reviewing is a process of trying to get some intellectual order in those quite chaotic immediate emotional responses - not always this chaotic, I admit - and, in a way, a tracing of that process.

In the end, I concluded that the production and play intended that sort of dislocation, that they constantly challenged the desire to settle on a particular relation to the work, and because it had an impact on me that slid beneath all the conscious thinking, I felt that it was doing what I want theatre to do. I think it's that refusal to be any one thing - but rather, to be all those dfferent things all at once - that generates much of its discomfort, and it's a conscious artistic decision. Some people will no doubt dislike it for that reason.

As to the "based on a real story" thing... yes, maybe problematic, although I didn't feel it was, maybe because its metaphor read quite clearly to me. I took it as a fiction - it's clearly removed from the original events, and it's not pretending to be documentary theatre. In the end, artists do distort; their work is to imagine, and the question then is what to make of the imagining. Which is not to say that there's not an uncomfortable question there.

TimT said...

Ah, surely it was Pig Iron Bob's ability to vaniquish the Giant Rat people that made him such a long-lived and successful PM!

And I'll give you a furious mattress.

TimT said...

Just realised. Robert Menzies - an actor? Goodness me, does every Liberal PM have an actor name-doppleganger? Is this part of a nefarious plot by the arts community?

Alison Croggon said...


Robert Menzies the actor is in fact a genuine scion. But that's kind of irrelevant. Or should be.

Jason said...

I've summed up my own thoughts here:|-malthouse-theatre.html

"It is duplicitous, this work; days after seeing the world premiere at Malthouse’s Beckett Theatre I’m haunted by the emotional deceit it inspires."

I agonised over this review, for the same reasons you brilliantly identified. Is this GOOD theatre? It's certainly challenging. Perhaps more than anything else I've seen...

4 Coffins said...

It's not that it's an uncomfortable question for me, but I was pretty confused about what question it was actually asking. The text - an examination of country Victoria with characters who in this context are absurd but also oddly familiar (some behaviour/mannerisms HORRIBLY reminiscent of people from my home town). But the production as a whole? Not sure. Yes I understand your point about intellect vs immediate response but if there's not a discernable investigation going on it feels superficial and even futile, dangerous when based on a real death. In response to your preposition, I claim that only a feeling is not really an option for an entire piece of text-based theatre (it is if it were more concept-based). For me there was an investigation in the writing, but the direction fell short. This wasn't a productive juxtaposition and it felt like two different projects were going on, though sometimes they clashed interestingly.

Yes it was whacky. Yes it was surreal. Yes it was heightened. But... big picture? I walked away with virtually nothing but a slightly uneasy feeling and a mild appreciation of skillful work.

Horror film meets rural Victoria? Think of the possibilities! Celia: Child of Terror ('87 I think) - an Aus horror film that puts rural Victorian life under the microscope through 1950's communism and the supernatural. Brilliant!

tom said...

Dear 4 Coffins,

your speculation at the end of the preceding comment is absolutely delicious - horror film meets rural victoria - i'd love to see it and i'm pretty sure i'd love melissa to write it, but it does expose an ongoing weakness in our dialogue about theatre.

Melissa doesn't exist to write the play that you - or I - or anyone else wants her to write. The same goes for the director, actors - so on and so forth. Unless we discuss what it is we are seeing (rather than what it is we wanted to see) we are saying nothing and, more unfortunately, making gross overstatements such as "a feeling is not really an option for an entire piece of text-based theatre" and the connected, to me bizarrely over-stated suggestion that the production is dangerous becasue it is based on a real death.

First, is it? "Loosely inspired" is about as far as I would go. The investigation in this play (as it is in most of Melissa's plays) is more centred around fantasy. Very often, Melissa takes a germ - does research to be sure and meticulously at that - but really it is her seeking to understand the endless quirks and foibles to which we are all prey that seem to me to drive the plays.

The great achievement for me in FM was its ordinariness smashing into its...well...insanity? Faith? Conviction? Passion? Depends where you stand.

What is the play asking? the questions are HUGE in this play - just not writ large, which seems to me to be Melissa's way. The exploration of love and marriage, sexuality and gender, the nature of faith, the attraction/repulsion energy of desire, our ability/propensity to detach in isolation, even whether in the end we can call this murder.

These questions have nothing to do with the original case which - perhaps - inspired it, just as The Crucible has nothing to do with the Bostonian witch-hunts. These events - Azaria Chamberlain, Princess Diana's death, the famous underarm bowl, 9/11 - make our stomachs lurch in some strange way because they touch our ancient stuff. They aren't intellectual propositions and playwrights are not academics.

So much theatre (and film and television) is devoted to maintaining our collective fantasy that we live in a linear world. Action and consequence. The sheer irrationality of everyday life is strangely not often apparent in our fiction - or at least within the dna of it. There are many descriptions of irrationality but few works that actually seek to inhabit it. This, I think, along with many of Melissa's plays, is a fabulous attempt.

I, like many others I know, was so curious about the original event. I had a really visceral response to it because I was so fascinated with what it would take for such a thing to happen. What is the nature of such faith, such passionate belief and how must it feel when it goes wrong? This is one person's imagining of it. Not, I believe, any kind of claim to represent anything like what actually happened but a burrowing down into what might have been and as such it's an extraordinary piece of writing,

Art, it seems to me, is all about empathy - and empathy doesn't necessarily correlate with truth. The weirdness we have all described, the dislocation, the shiver in this piece is its genius. The determination of Melissa and all of her collaborators not to explain it is I think the point. It's up to us to do the work.

4 Coffins said...

Hi Tom,

Appreciate your comment. Perhaps I overstated some things.

I did like the writing, and my post related to its realisation. (You mention Melissa a lot, but I wasn't really taking issue with the writing, I was questioning the production as a whole).

I think the subject needs to be treated with extreme care because it only happened 20 years ago (as opposed to Miller's 250 year gap) and it was in our backyard. Investigating this event is fine but it's proximity and immediacy mean that a soft touch is required.

I actually believe (with some guesswork) Melissa Reeves did this in the writing, and I was questioning whether the realisation had, especially the cartoonish elements (such as the punch sound effect or the giant rat), which maybe moved it into a farcical, cartoon territory. To me, this is dangerous. 'Loosely inspired' is not an excuse to take more liberties with the source. It is a real, recent event - not Three Sisters or something. I don't mean reverence... but the stakes are high and a careful pitch is required. Some of these decisions came across to me as showing not thorough consideration of the real event, which actually diluted its impact for me. I found myself disconnected from the event itself.

Yes ok, the 'feeling' comment wasn't really articulate, what I mean is that I need more from proscenium arch theatre. I need narrative, story, context, etc. It was a response to Alison's comment about intellectualising.

In the end comment I was comparing this play to the film Celia, which I think uses its context in a way that exposes something about the setting and the time, which I feel is a weakness in Furious Matress (again, more in the realisation than the writing). Obviously there are also similarities in their source material.

I like what you said about the 'shiver' in the piece and I share this to a certain degree. Part of me posting is that I'm trying to work out why I didn't love it as a whole, and I feel like I should have. I also like what you said about ordinariness smashing into insanity. My immediate response is that this could have been realised more.

I wish I could have seen what you saw in the play. What I saw was an odd comedy with a slightly surreal edge and some bizarre moments. I wanted more, because I think the potential is there. Admittedly I saw an early run and it seems like the kind of thing that might evolve over a season, and I certainly hope so.

At least Melissa Reeves don't have no MFA...

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks all for this passionate dialogue! Just catching up now I'm back from Adelaide, a little belatedly (and a warm welcome to new Melburnian Jason - great to see you here! I'll catch you in a foyer sometime...)

I would be wary of pinning artists down to facts, especially when they're not claiming to recount them. This is where the "based on a true story" PR can count against a work: yes, Melissa started with a real story, but that's certainly not where she finished. I think Tom is correct when he claims that the play and the production both sought to create a mimesis of the experience of delusion, rather than simply to talk about it.

I don't think it's disrespectful, but I can see where others might find it so. But I've certainly in my life had that response of wild hilarity in a situation which is tragic and painful, and that in itself doesn't mean heartlessness. It can in fact mean the opposite.

Maybe it also chimed with personal experience: I was raised in country western Victoria, and for me Melissa Reeves gets the speech patterns and attitudes right. Real life can be also be more gothic than one might imagine, and she gets that too. It's lifted somewhere else, but for me that somewhere else was truthful; we deal all the time with people who will deny the reality in front of their noses out of some panicky ideological belief (climate change deniers being only an obvious example). But I can quite see how others might feel it is unsatisfactory: it's the kind of work that runs that risk.

4 Coffins said...

I like that insight. It links the play with absurdist writers like Ionesco in Rhinoscerous. And I think this sort of narrative is one for our time, because there is a lot of denial of the obvious.

Wasn't really pinning anyone down to facts, just saying that the context felt... mishandled somewhere. I think 'is it the truth' is not a productive dialogue here, (it's obviously not), but is it a good lie? A lie that achieves something??

For others it seems to have, I'm still struggling to see it.

P.S Alison, you missed a hell of a storm! And they've sadly had to cancel shows at the Malthouse.

Alison Croggon said...

I know! I felt lucky to get home - I was circling above the clouds, waiting for Melbourne Airport to re-open. I might have ended up in Toowoomba!

It seems that the Malthouse's booking computers and phone lines are all down. Doesn't seem that anywhere in the CBD was unaffected... those videos of Elizabeth St as watercourse are crazy!