Review: Porn.Cake ~ theatre notes

Friday, April 29, 2011

Review: Porn.Cake

Consumerism depends on the frustration of desire. Unhappiness might be the most profitable emotion in first world society: it creates an ever-tightening spiral, the pursuit of happiness inevitably frustrated by its displacement into commodification. This dissatisfaction sparks more consumption that in its turn remains unsatisfying, requiring more consumption. Consumption, excess, waste, consumption: it's the neurotic mechanism that is presently destroying our planet.

Karl Marx described in some detail this investment of material objects with an aura of mystery, calling it a fetish. He saw it as a process which replaces social relationships with a material object that symbolises them, to the point that the object becomes the definition of relationship. The example Marx used was the money market, in which the value of money subsumed all other values: the things that money represents, such as labour or the inherent values of objects themselves, disappear in the aura of money itself.

"Like the growing of trees," he said, "so the breeding of money appears as an innate quality of capital": interest-bearing capital magically grows interest, creating more capital. Money is the thing, no longer representing anything but itself. "Money", says Marx in a striking phrase, "is then pregnant". It's a suggestive metaphor, hinting towards a mechanism of self-perpetuating frustration underlaid by displaced mechanisms of desire.

For Freud, the other major theoriser of fetish, fetish was an obsession that replaced "the normal sexual aim". A fetish is a substitute, an object that replaces and obliterates original desire. There's certainly, as Marx's images demonstrate, a close imaginative relationship between money and sex.

For Vanessa Bates, the fetish - economic, social and sexual - is cake. Porn.Cake, now playing at the Malthouse, is a savage comedy about the desolation of two middle-class childless couples, who at around the mid-40 mark find themselves inexplicably unhappy. They're comfortably off, without being wealthy; they're bored without knowing why; they are old enough to reflect back on their adulthood, wondering why childhood was so much more full of promise. Without having done anything, they naggingly feel that it's all over.

The solution is cake. The women - Bella (Heather Bolton) and Annie (Christen O'Leary) scour their Jamie and Nigella cookbooks and make astounding cakes, which they offer to their husbands Ant (Travis McMahon) and Bill (Luke Elliott). The men eat them with indifference, remaining robotically glued to their iPhones. The women ask anxiously if they are still attractive; the men laugh automatically at texts they don't share with their wives.

Social and sexual interactions through this play are emptied of meaning by the constant anxiety that none of them are good enough, that they must all measure up to some obscure but nevertheless imperative ideal. The cake, the fantasies of pornography, the fake immediacy of technology, end up replacing the risks of actual relationship and real communication. These characters have all, despite themselves, made themselves into things.

Bates's play is simply structured - it consists of four monologues, which are punctuated by some meta-theatrical games in which domestic relationship is serially stripped of its meaning, each thing being replaced by something else in a continually intensifying spiral of impoverishment. The illusion of theatre is also stripped away, as the stage manager enters and cleans up the destroyed cakes, and an actor apologies for another performer who is heard noisily being sick back stage ("gluten allergy"). It's smart, intelligent and inventive writing.

And it's blessed with equally smart design, with Darrin Verhagen's sound subliminally marking the rhythms of the show. Christina Smith's set, exposingly lit by Rachel Burke, turns the Beckett's auditorium is side-on, so the entire length of the stage is a shop window display. The shelves are topped with funky neon script spelling out a nonsensical word that looks like some mega brand name. During the play, isolated letters light up to become scene headings. Inside the display are shelves and shelves of cakes, like a kind of nightmare Brunettis. In the middle of the stage is a long wooden table and some chairs. It's somehow immediately enclosing, as if you really had entered a shop, rather than a theatre.

For the first ten to 15 minutes, however, I was in some doubt. I'm not sure that this is a problem with the text, so much with the introductory conventions that director Pamela Rabe creates: it's not until later on in the performance that you know how to read it. Bella (Heather Bolton) wanders on stage in a desultory fashion, leans against the table, and begins her monologue. Reinforced by what appeared to be some very clunky dialogue as the first cake was taken off the shelves and eaten by the first couple, it set up expectations which I had to dismantle to enjoy the play.

Was this really, I thought with dread, going to be a kind of theatrical chicklit, illuminated with strawberry-flavoured whimsy and simplistic, reassuring irony? Was this just going to be bad naturalism? Was, in short, Bates offering us an Australian version of a Sarah Ruhl play? There was just enough spikiness in there not to be sure: and, as it turned out, my premonitions were all wrong. I'm not sure what the solution might be, but I needed to be let in on the joke a little earlier. Fortunately, the production transcends its uncertain opening.

Porn.Cake certainly outlines a bleak view of contemporary relationships. The cake ritual is neurotically repeated, bit by bit breaking down into nonsense and aggression, and it rapidly becomes clear that, for these couples, substitution is a way of being. Bates is a skilled exploiter of repetition, patiently weaving the same images and phrases through different contexts to create a theatrical world. The theme of substitution is worked until it becomes nonsense: "Cake is the new porn." "Google is the new cake."

Set against these abstracted performances of middle-class neuroticism are the monologues, which open up the self-deceptions and, most of all, the loneliness of the four characters. They reveal their longings, their nostalgia, their dissatisfactions: and you realise that none of these characters, except possibly Bella, have much self-insight. They stand forlornly in the midst of their comfortable unhappiness, unable to imagine their way out of it. The comedy, like most comedy, erupts out of the gaps between their self-perception and how we perceive them; their pathos is in their fumbling realisations of the inner emptiness of their lives.

It's clearly a difficult play to realise, and aside from my initial reservations, Rabe's production brings it to vivid and complex life. I wasn't sure about the abstract movement that punctuated some of the scenes, where the actors briefly become automata making truncated gestures: that seemed to hammer the point a little too obviously. But Rabe has an excellent cast who play the differing levels of the production and text with accuracy and wit, bringing out the feeling in their characters without losing any of the sting.

It's definitely a must-see, which by focusing on the minutae of contemporary relationships throws a stark light over the larger social mechanisms that condition them: here the personal is, indeed, political. And, drawing us explicitly into its circle of neurotic consumption, there's cake for the audience, too.

Pictures: top: (l-r) Luke Elliot, Christen O’Leary, Heather Bolton and Travis McMahon in Porn.Cake; bottom, Kristen O'Leary and Travis McMahon. Photos: Jeff Busby

Porn.Cake by Vanessa Bates, directed by Pamela Rabe. Sets and costumes by Christina Smith, lighting by Rachel Burke, sound design by Darrin Verhagen. With Heather Bolton, Luke Elliott, Travis McMahon and Christen O'Leary. Beckett Theatre @ Malthouse Theatre until May 8.


janitor said...

gggaahhhh...this review is almost longer than the show and really short on criticism.
it's not that this is a difference of's that people, and by people I mean critics, are, of late, not willing to acknowledge when theatre is actually being bad theatre ie. making excuses and inventing additional narrative to substantiate work that is seriously in need of dramaturgical attention - thin on intention, fat on tricks. 'patiently weaving...images...'??? more like laboriously substituting actual dialogue for heavy-handed swabbing at zeitgeist by way of repetitive cultural references.
it's entertainment and it's allowed to be entertainment. and as entertainment it's a sugary extra course in the first season menu, and as entertainment that course is a reasonably tasty morsel. but the problem is it is directed and promoted and critiqued as theatre that asks a question and as theatre that asks a question, that provokes some thought beyond pat and easy attempts at profundity it is not good. not good. made me a little queasy.

Alison Croggon said...

You mean, you disagree? I saw something in it that you didn't. In other shows, other people see things in work that I don't. Such is theatre. I don't "make excuses"; why should I? And I should say it's perfectly possible for something to be "entertainment" and also to provoke thought.

Ack said...

Get out of the water closet Janitor. The Herald Sun said :The characters are undeveloped, relationships are shallow, the writer's intention is unclear and the separate layers do not jell". And the Ausrtalian called it a painfully dull, dramatically ineffective and mechanically clunky piece.

Critical enough for ya?

upalingi said...

No, the piece of writing had no chance of being what it is (or could be), given the extraordinary level of design thrown at it. This is not a critique of the design, rather the directorial choice to take that route. This work is screaming out for a bare bones production, for the actors are fine enough (in fact very fine in some cases) to pull that off. A bare bones rendering would allow the text to come alive. As it is here presented, disguised and hidden behind thousands and thousands of dollars worth of show.

The silly repetitive gestures too - just silly and really this production is nothing but a big expensive loss maker in the offing.

Sack the designers (offer them another gig to work on - this is not an attack on the work of the designers I reiterate) and please, can Australian theatre begin to start allowing the written word to lead the way - at least sometimes?

This director led, design aided phase is often times amazing. But then in cases such as this, well, a showpiece for a director burdened with cash to spend. But unfortunately, better described as simply Bad Pamela.

enough from me, I'm off to feed the starving from the Malthouse bins :)

Chris Boyd said...

FYI, the repetitive gestures were invited by the playwright in the script. (i.e. she suggested the actors come up with their own.)