Review: Fatboy ~ theatre notes

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Review: Fatboy

This review contains spoilers.

In 2010, it's difficult to avoid a profound - even a paralysing - pessimism. Everywhere you look, human greed and blind self-interest trump any other consideration. The so-called debate on climate change only demonstrates the hypnotic power of delusion and ignorance; the distortions of political spin and media white noise degrade our language, so that truthfulness is all but impossible or, where possible, inaudible; rationality is gobbled up by psychotic self-deception and spat out as mockery. The ideals of democracy are an illusion, a pantomime choreographed by Fox News and big business.

While the dance of pixels keeps our neurones dormant, behind the scenes we continue the biggest mass species extinction in 65 million years, and pursue pointless wars with deadlier and deadlier weapons that consume a staggering percentage of our increasingly scarce resources. We blindly condemn millions of our fellows to lives of unspeakable misery in the interests of the vampiric demigods of the human race, corporate shareholders. We are a toxic wasteland, a desert of the soul, a calamity.



I've sometimes thought the abiding spirit of our times might be Hamlet: there's a prophetic edge to his description of the skies as "a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours", after all. And how exquisitely he spits on the human promise, so teasingly present in us all, and which, for all the evidence against us, we are so loath to forgo!

What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculties! in form and moving, how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension, how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me.

Yet there's another, equally compelling figure who presides over our modernity: against Hamlet's fatal indecision, Alfred Jarry's obscene man of action, Ubu. "I make my fortune, snickersnack, then kill the whole world and buggeroff." You could emblazon that on the coat of arms of Dick Cheney: draft-dodging warmonger and former CEO of oil giant Halliburton, and as Vice President, the brains of the Bush administration. Also, someone whom even Henry Kissinger was moved to describe as "evil".

Which brings me to Fatboy, John Clancy's 2006 adaptation of Jarry's first play, Ubu Roi. It's the kind of play which makes you laugh all the way through, and leaves you with a kind of bracing blackness. Its absurdity and grotesqueness cut through cant and piety, and brutally reveal how bad things are. Because they really are as bad as all that. Probably worse. The laughter makes it possible to see it, albeit briefly; human beings, as the poet once said, cannot bear very much reality.

Clancy's adaptation is in the spirit of Jarry's play, but plays fast and free with the original to update Ubu to contemporary America (and by extension, the wealthy west - this is all performed in Australian accents, except for a wonderful speech that mashes some notorious presidential quotes). Fatboy (Daniel Frederiksen) is a man of insatiable appetite: he literally devours money, to the continual despair of his wife Fudgie (Olga Makeeva). In the first act, after their obligatory trading of insults, she sends him out into the world to find a job while Fudgie, a woman of insatiable appetites herself, seduces a prospective tenant (Adam Pierzchalski). Fatboy's idea of a job is to murder a bank full of people and empty their pockets: he returns triumphant, murders the tenant who cuckolds him, and vows to continue his violent career.

The following act sees him being prosecuted for crimes against humanity. It reminds me, in its absurdity, of the court scene in The Magic Pudding (a story which, in its own way, reveals almost as bleak a view of humanity as Jarry). This act contains the best incidence of a running gag in which impassioned gestures are made towards human nobility: the judge makes a moving speech about the inalienability of human rights, to stunned silence: and then, after a long pause, the entire cast falls about laughing. I can't think of a better representation of the gap between governmental pieties about justice, and their unjust actions.

Finally, Fatboy becomes ruler of the world, which is not as much fun as he thought it would be: he finds that he has devoured everything, and there is nothing left to eat: no more wheat, no more milk, no more cows. He is reduced to eating his own crown. There is an attempted assassination, and so he kills everybody. The End.

Well, not quite the end: there is an apparently improvised epilogue, in which the actors remove their costumes, and Fatboy walks into the audience to tell us that we, arseholes, are him. This is the weakest part of the play, since the message has long been hammered home: it's our unbridled consumerism that drives this destruction. But it's funny, all the same.

It's perfect for Red Stitch's tiny stage, which is transformed into a Jarry-esque puppet theatre behind a lush red curtain (Jarry thought that the main thing wrong with theatre was the actors, and that they ought to be replaced with puppets). It's a wonderful, anarchic production of the play: director Marcelle Schmitz picks up and plays all the louche theatricality of the text, backed by Peter Mumford's cartoonish design of painted flats. There's a good dose of meta-theatricality, with white-face actors asking permission to leave the stage so they can change costume for their next role, a puppet show between acts where Fatboy eats the puppet, and loud thumps and sotte voce cursing backstage as the sets are changed between acts.

Schmitz has an excellent cast, who play the grotesquerie to the hilt: I loved all the performances, especially Frederikson ("I am Fatboy, and I am titular!") In the smaller roles, all doubled, the three supporting actors, Adam Pierzchalski, Dion Mills and Andrea Swifte, are hard to beat, and Olga Makeeva as Queen Fudgie generates a peculiarly grotesque sex appeal. It's not a place to look for subtlety: this is a theatre of broad, obvious gesture. The language is limber and witty enough to to keep you interested, and its constant inventive obscenity creates a compelling poetic.

As political theatre, this kind of rambunctious satire is vastly preferable to the wan politicising of a David Hare, because it does nothing to pacify the audience. It's rude, crude, vital and very, very angry. Does it make a difference? Only in the way the art does: there is a liberation in contemplating the truth of our circumstances, that might combat the paralysis that otherwise would overwhelm us. The naming of the terrible is a hope in itself. When actual - as opposed to delusive - hope seems about as endangered as the thylacine, that seems no bad thing to me.

Picture: Daniel Frederiksen as Fatboy, ruling the world at Red Stitch.

Fatboy, by John Clancy, directed by Marclle Schmitz. Design by Peter Mumford, lighting design by Stelios Karagiannis, costume design Olga Makeeva and Peter Mumford, sound design by Russel Goldsmith. With Daniel Frederiksen, Olga Makeeva, Adam Pierzchalski, Andrea Swifte and Dion Mills. Red Stitch until April 17. Bookings: 9533 8083.

12 comments:

Emily Sexton said...

Great review Alison. I'm trapped in Comedy Festival land and am unlikely to catch it, so thank you!

If people are interested, John Bailey has a wonderful interview with John Clancy (playwright) on his blog - http://www.apentimento.blogspot.com/

Emily

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks Emily - shame you'll miss it. If it isn't, Fatboy ought to be part of MICF!

Here's a live link for those wanting to read John's excellent interview.

Maladjusted said...

Brillaint review, Allison. I must try and steal myself some tickets to this show.

Also (at the risk of being irrevocably banned from your comment thread), I admit that I was thinking while I was reading
this:

When will someone personify rapacious and insatiable capitalism by a svelte,
attractive, happy-go-lucky person all smiley and taut of abdomen and generally stylish and nice...?

I mean, given that one of the distinctive features of our civilisation is that barbarism always wears a a human (and even seductive) face, (a point that, sounds that it was very much apparent to the creators of 'Fatboy' -- especially in the trial scene that you desribe above..) I can't help thinking that a nicely toned-gym body might be a better metaphor for our age than the 'hamburger gorging blimp/Jabba the Hut monster just because this would have the nice touch of representing not just over-consumption, but over-consumption + EXTRA consumption to avoid the APPEARNACE of over-consumption. Far more Zeitgeisty, methinks...

Thus: I hereby swear that if I ever should write a theatrical super-villain, he (gender variable on last minute impulse) shall (obviously) shoot and eat his fellow man, but he shall also work out afterwards so that he can look good at the club, and have the energy to get through his busy schedule...

Actually, there's another reason that I'm in favour of casting a gym junkie: i.e. the way such a figure also evokes our Zeitgeit: neither puritanical nor hedonistic, but the two pervesely folded into each other such that they become (bizarrely) indistingusihable. (Work as play! Play as work! and so on)...

Best,

Mal.

Alison Croggon said...

Bizarrely, this came through on my email, but isn't anywhere on the blog. For fear that Malajusted thinks it was a pre-emptive banning by me, here it is.

Brillaint review, Allison. I must try and steal myself some tickets to this show.

Also (at the risk of being irrevocably banned from your comment thread), I admit that I was thinking while I was reading
this:

When will someone personify rapacious and insatiable capitalism by a svelte,
attractive, happy-go-lucky person all smiley and taut of abdomen and generally stylish and nice...?

I mean, given that one of the distinctive features of our civilisation is that barbarism always wears a a human (and even seductive) face, (a point that, sounds that it was very much apparent to the creators of 'Fatboy' -- especially in the trial scene that you desribe above..) I can't help thinking that a nicely toned-gym body might be a better metaphor for our age than the 'hamburger gorging blimp/Jabba the Hut monster just because this would have the nice touch of representing not just over-consumption, but over-consumption + EXTRA consumption to avoid the APPEARNACE of over-consumption. Far more Zeitgeisty, methinks...

Thus: I hereby swear that if I ever should write a theatrical super-villain, he (gender variable on last minute impulse) shall (obviously) shoot and eat his fellow man, but he shall also work out afterwards so that he can look good at the club, and have the energy to get through his busy schedule...

Actually, there's another reason that I'm in favour of casting a gym junkie: i.e. the way such a figure also evokes our Zeitgeit: neither puritanical nor hedonistic, but the two pervesely folded into each other such that they become (bizarrely) indistingusihable. (Work as play! Play as work! and so on)...

Best,

Mal.

Me again: I think we already have your grotesque character, in the person of Tony Abbott

Born Dancin' said...

Mal, that image was perfected by Bret Easton Ellis in American Psycho, in which the ultra-violent, cannibalistic serial killer devotes as much time to his skincare as he does to skinning people. I don't know of any literary character that so well personifies capitalist gluttony in the form of an obsessive narcissist. Don't take that as a recommendation, however; the book's also absolutely monstrous.

Anonymous said...

Maybe some god botherin' speedos would do the trick. Point is, this Fatboy IS kinda svelte. He's just wearing a fatsuit. That's why the epilogue is there. The actor steps out from the 'puppet' - acknowledging that the gluttonish barbarian, while a figure of fun, is merely another cartoonish (mis)representation of the greater evil. Anyway, go see the show Mal and don't eat the tickets.

Anonymous said...

Also Mal and everyone I reckon the image (speedos, gym junkie, facist leader, mindless consumption, grotesque etc) was perfected by Tom Doig's 'Hitlerhoff' in Melbourne Fringe 2008; a show that had a very similar trajectory and message to Fatboy. Both shows even ending with a bizarrely similar final monologue...
Anyone else see the similarities?

Tobias Manderson-Galvin said...

oops that last note was from me not 'anonymous'.
tobias.

Mother of Invention Acting School said...

Love your criticism Alison. Makes me want to produce plays, and go and see plays, which is saying a lot.

Anonymous said...

Fat Boy, oh dear. Not clever, not witty. Uses bad language as a substitute for good dialogue. Yes, we got the message. We were hit over the head with it - over and over and over! The message was worthy of a play, the cast was worthy of performing it - but where was the writer?

Anonymous said...

See Wiki on The Grotesque in literature and, in particular, Italian theatre. http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grotesque?wasRedirected=true

Alison Croggon said...

The relentless obscentity reminded me of some of those wingnut right wing blogs...and there was enough spin in the language to keep me from being bored.

It's certainly in the tradition of Ubu. The first performance in Paris in 1896 caused a scandal. For many reasons, but particularly because its first word was "shit".