*NB: Major spoilers after the fold*
Deadpan irony is a perilous art. Australians are reflexively ironic, and can find themselves disconcerted when the irony doesn't carry, when a flip statement intended by its very outrageousness to highlight some absurdity or injustice is, contrary to its intention, read straight. This is particularly perilous when spoken statements make it into print. For example, Joanna Murray-Smith caused a minor flutter last week with a Q and A in the Sunday Age in which she was asked what it was like, as a writer, to be in a female "minority".
"The trouble is that most women are much more interested in getting the darn ironing under control, or shopping for something cute to get into when hubby gets home from the office," said Murray-Smith. "Guys are just a whole lot more likely to be geniuses. You can't fight human nature." Jaws dropped all over Melbourne, emails were emailed, tweets were tweeted. Surely, they all said, she can't be serious? Surely? And no, of course she wasn't serious: she was dropping some heavy irony, perhaps tired of being asked a stupid question yet again, and it didn't translate into the straight-up-and-down, toneless format of the quiz.
Her plays, especially her dramas, can prompt the same reaction, and here the question is much more complex. She is at her best as a comic writer (and in her monologues for particular performers, such as Bombshells or Songs for Nobodies), and at her weakest when she attempts drama. Her new play The Gift is a largely unsuccessful shot at combining satire and drama, switching to more serious concerns in the second act. You read Murray-Smith's plays without irony at your peril, but the nagging question, "surely she can't be serious?", has a long shadow in this play.
The Gift is a tale of a friendship between two couples that unfolds in real time conversation - in a bar, on a boat, in an apartment. Ed (Richard Piper) and Sadie (Heather Bolton) are self-made millionaires, childless and comfortably middle-aged. On a break at a thousand-dollar-a-night resort in the tropics they meet Martin (Matt Dyktynski) and Chloë (Elizabeth Debicki), the former a struggling conceptual artist, the latter a wannabe writer, who have won a holiday in a raffle.
Mutually attracted, the couples strike up a friendship over a lot of Chateau Expensive in the bar, and plan a boat trip the following day. A storm rises, Ed falls off the boat and is almost drowned, and Martin brings him back from the dead. Despite Martin and Chloë's demurrals, Ed and Sadie insist they want to give the younger couple a gift for saving Ed's life. They plan to meet a year hence, during which time Martin and Chloë can decide what it is they want most.
The second act follows their later meeting, this time in a luxurious high-rise apartment. Ed and Sadie recount their past year. Rejuvenated by their brush with death, they have discovered art: they have flown from capital to capital, hungrily consuming whatever they find. Ed has the jargon down pat, too. Then it's Martin and Chloë's turn. After a lot of prevarication, they announce that they would like Ed and Sadie to take their four-year-old daughter Eleanor, and give them back their pre-parent lives. Ed and Sadie are horrified and angry, Martin and Chloë alternately abashed and heartbroken. It finishes with a mutual vision of Eleanor, summoned by the two parents, playing in her unspoilt world in the background.
Woven into this bald plot are arguments about class, parenthood and, in particular, art. It is almost a stinging parody; its self-obsessed characters expose the tedium of a life of consumerism, the narcissism of contemporary mores, the emptiness of the commodification of art, the guilt that seems hard-wired into middle-class parenting, the poisonous nature of nostalgia. But The Gift demonstrates the paradox of parody, which half-worships what it seeks to excoriate. In this case, the blackness of Murray-Smith's satire is blunted by a pervasive sentimentality. The sentimentality originates in the script, but Maria Aitken's slick production heightens it to the point where it undermines any sense of irony.
And clearly these characters are meant, at one level at least, to be ironically rendered. The most sympathetic are the older couple, who remain oddly innocent: their wealth has been almost accidentally acquired, and they delight in it like children. Sadie shops, Ed - a bluff-spoken self-made man - runs the business. They are, however, a little bored. Chloë and Martin seem to them to embody a vitality and curiosity about life that they have lost. The younger couple, on the other hand, see people who have attained a success to which they aspire: Chloë forlornly confesses that, more than anything, she wants a dishwasher; Martin is impressed by Ed's plain-spokenness, his manly decisiveness in a competitive world. And both Chloë and Martin envy Ed and Sadie their childless irresponsibility: they have a playfulness which the younger couple, ground down by the everyday, lacks. Both couples are, they tell each other, honest people.
This ecstatic mutual discovery is a set up for the crisis, where scales fall from eyes and the uglier sides of these couples are exposed. And there's no denying that the artistic couple comes off worse in these revelations: they are not only pretentious, they are self-servingly blind. Ed, disgusted that Chloë and Martin could even think of getting rid of their daughter, summons an old-fashioned sense of right and wrong when he speaks of "seeing things through" (also, perhaps accidentally, one of the phrases that crops up in debate about wars in the Middle East). The two represent ordinary decency, which may be consciously compromised (they laughingly speak of their carbon footprints before dismissing the thought of actually doing anything about them), but is decent all the same.
It's no accident that Martin is a conceptual artist. Ever since Tom Wolfe's satire The Painted Word, conceptual art has been a rich field for those who want to claim that artists are wankers. Not that Murray-Smith is doing anything quite so crude. Martin and Chloë talk about little except art, and the play is rich with references to famous conceptual art installations: Ed waxes lyrical over Richard Wilson's 20:50, an installation in which an entire room is flooded with black oil, and Martin Creed's A door opening and closing and a light going on and off. He has discovered the wisdom of Martin's exhortation to him a year earlier: "Suspend doubt". He has suspended doubt, and life is marvellous.
This phrase, which recurs through the play like a mantra, is a sloganistic reworking of Coleridge's passage in Biographia Literaria on "the willing suspension of disbelief". Coleridge's catchy formulation has been used and abused ever since: it constitutes a central tenet in Romantic theories about art, and is certainly a useful reference in speaking of forms such as theatre. It's worth examining how its meaning is changed here, when "disbelief" is translated into "doubt". Coleridge originally was talking about narrative poems like the The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, which were published next to Wordsworth's poems of the everyday in their radical book Lyrical Ballads. "My endeavours," said Coleridge, "[are] directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith."
The aim of Coleridge's evocation of the "supernatural" was to coax from the imagination a "semblance of truth", with the willing collusion of the conscious mind. That willing collusion constitutes a fleeting "for the moment" act of faith, a leap into the unknown. So we choose to consciously accept the artifice, even the absurdity, of art, in order to experience the inner truths it might illuminate.
To "suspend doubt" suggests something entirely different: the suspension of doubt is an invitation to certainty. Rather than a willing and conscious collusion, it suggests a giving over of mental authority to the artist: questions must be quashed, scepticism put aside, in order to enter the sacred inner world the artist offers. In this formulation, the imagination of the artist is a kind of tyranny. In The Gift, this is represented by Martin's sculpture (exhibited at Tate Modern) of a holographic child inside a glass box. I guess, in the context of the play, it represents what has happened to Martin's "inner child" under the stress of parenthood; it also may represent Eleanor herself, trapped inside her parents' self-obsessed anxieties.
This bowdlerisation of a complex idea sits at the heart of my unease with The Gift: it is full of cod-Romantic ideas about art, which seem especially strange when applied to sternly anti-Romantic work such as conceptual art. The Romantic imagination is here transformed from a mutually enriching dynamic of inner imagination encountering the outer world, to a hermetically-sealed narcissism. Both Chloë and Martin are thorough-going narcissists: they lament "the world inside my head", the imaginative world here presented as the realm of art, which is "ruined" by its exposure the world outside.
The "unruined" child Eleanor, whom we glimpse at the end of the play, is ruining their artistic lives; she is nevertheless a symbol of primal innocence. It's unclear, in the end, why they wish to give her away: on the one hand, they can't bear to watch her childhood purity ruined by contact with reality; on the other, she has destroyed their own childish freedom. On another hand altogether, they insist that they love her.
The whole argument sets up a fake dilemma - art vs "ordinary" life - as a central condition of art. It elides some important things, such as art being impossible without life. The everyday is, after all, deeply embedded in the Romantic tradition. As Coleridge puts it, poetry should "awaken the mind's attention from the lethargy of custom, and direct it to the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us; an inexhaustible treasure, but for which in consequence of the film of familiarity and selfish solicitude we have eyes, yet see not, ears that hear not, and hearts that neither feel nor understand".
Is Murray-Smith's decadent echo of Romanticism meant to be satirical? For all its absurdity, there is no dialectic of a possible artistic truthfulness that rubs against it: instead, it is placed next to the common middle class decency of Ed and Sadie and the final vision of childish innocence. Her propositions are certainly too easy to take at face value: such ideas accord very neatly with common conceptions about art as self-indulgent wankery, a refusal to deal with the "real world", a state of pickled childishness.
Which brings me to the point which maybe bothers me most of all. The first act features a Waiter performed by Leighton Young, which is perhaps one of the most thankless roles seen recently in Melbourne. The Waiter has notably darker skin than the white, middle class cast, and he floats about the stage, serving drinks and occasionally moving scenery. He says not a word. I found myself waiting for him to break out of his waiterly role, to perhaps make some comment or otherwise show us that he was a actual character, rather than the useful prop he seems to be. Then I wondered if his mute, dark-skinned presence was an ironic visual comment on the unthinking first world consumption, insulated by privilege and money, of third world labour. It may have been intended in that way - again, you are left with a troubling ambiguity - but whether intended or not, what he ended up being in actual effect was the help: discreet, other, and all but invisible, hovering anonymously on the edge of the action.
The playwright wavers between making her characters unsympathetic parodies with repulsive excesses, or empathetic; in the end, she plumps for a simple empathy to dissolve the dilemma. It's possible to straddle this division (Ricky Gervaise's monstrous David Brent being a case in point), but here it panders to its audience. It's the sentimentality that does for it. "No one," says Milan Kundera, "is more insensitive than sentimental folk". This play, with all its problematic aspects, could almost be an illustration of that aphorism, but that we are clearly meant to identify with the characters' distress (especially Chloë's tormented motherhood confessions) and are forced to accept that its finale - a kitschly sentimental vision of childhood - is supposed to evoke a kind of redemption. If that is so, the play embodies nothing so conscious as satire. Rather, it seems closer to Kafka's comment on the novels of Dickens: "Heartlessness masked by a style overflowing with feeling".
Certainly, nothing in Aitken's production sharpens the satire beyond some comfortably comic self-deprecations. Its cast performs the characters with sincerity, which perhaps is not the best way to serve the script; the only character who seemed at all real to me was Richard Piper's (admittedly over-acted) Ed. Richard Roberts' set delivers aspirational theatre - glamorous tropical bars, city skylines seen from picture windows. Even the poverty-stricken artists wear designer clothes. It works elegantly for most of it, aside from a clumsy evocation of a storm at sea using the bar with a revolve and projected backdrops, but if this play is supposed to stick pins into middle class anxiety and narcissism, it also makes it look pretty damn desirable. And, like Hollywood religion, it assures us that we are all really nice, well meaning people underneath.
It seems to me that Murray-Smith wants to have her cake and eat it too. If she really let loose the black impulses that lurk beneath some of her lines, she risks alienating her major audience. So we are comforted instead, and leave unawakened.
Picture: Richard Piper and Heather Bolton in The Gift. Photo: Jeff Busby
The Gift by Joanna Murray-Smith, directed by Maria Aitken. Set and costumes by Richard Roberts, lighting by Hartley TA Kemp, composer Ian McDonald, choreography by John Bolton. With Richard Piper, Heather Bolton, Matt Dyktynski, Elizabeth Debicki and Leighton Young. Eirini Kosmidis, Chloe Guymer or Nyah Hart as Eleanor. Sumner Theatre, Melbourne Theatre Company, until July 9.
Saturday, June 11, 2011
*NB: Major spoilers after the fold*