Review: Helicopter ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Review: Helicopter

Briefly, before the week disappears into the irrevocable past. And a suggestion that if you have an idle nine hours, you should spend them at Robert Lepage's Lipsynch, now on at the Arts Centre Melbourne: well worth the seeing, although after the experience I'm not very sure what it adds up to. Hoping to write about it later.

A pitiless satire on the spiritual emptiness of the suburbs, Angela Betzien's Helicopter is a worthy addition to the 2012 Lawler Studio season at the MTC, which is punching well above its weight. Here Betzien examines the splintering anxiety that the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman identified as a condition of the dislocations of corporate globalisation. According to Bauman, the middle classes, the particular target of Betzien's savagery here, react to the insecurities that result from the inequalities of globalisation with fear and suspicion: gated communities, increased policing, relentless materialism become defences that shield them against risk. The focus of this fear is often those they fear they might become: the homeless, or refugees displaced from war-torn countries. Ironically, these are strategies that can only intensify anxiety, since they can't address the origin of their fears.  

L-R: Charles Grounds, Terry Yeboah, Paul Denny and Daniela Farinacci in Helicopter. Photo: Jeff Busby

She (Daniela Farinacci) and He (Paul Denny) are a comfortably wealthy couple living in a six bedroom McMansion in a up-and-coming suburb. She describes herself without embarrassment as a helicopter parent, projecting all her anxieties onto her teenage son Jack (Charles Grounds); He works in pharmaceuticals. The play opens with a dreadful accident: He has run over and killed the child next door in his X5 four wheel drive. The child is from a family of African refugees, who rented the house before He and She moved into the upscaling suburb.

The couple's response is defensive from the beginning: they expect to be sued, and so won't admit liability by apologising, a human response which might have actually made a difference, however small. Their guilt displaces itself in meaningless actions: they are unable to address the actual problems, which spiral far beyond their culpability in the death of the child to the impossibility of even recognising the forces that act on them. This unrolls into a bleak examination of the impotence of the atomised individual and its serial destructiveness.

I'm not sure Betzien steps entirely surely through her heightened reality, but she certainly follows the logic of the neuroses she's exploring to their bitter end. Every character is a caricature, a collection of ever-narrowing projections, each blind in his or her own way. Thomas is the character who remembers what a community is, but his ideas are anachronistic in the society in which he finds himself, and there is no way back to a community that has been destroyed. He is as trapped and perhaps as misled as the toxic nuclear family which he regards with incredulity, pity and, at last, contempt. This character is probably the most problematic, in that he can't but be a cipher for authenticity, a locus for nostalgia, in the face of the family's uncomprehending alienation.

Leticia Cáceres's stylised production sometimes seems, like the script, a little unsure of its pitch: is this satire or realism? Are we supposed to empathise or wince? (I guess the answer is, both: but it's a difficult balance). But the assured performances from an excellent cast means its black absurdity wins out: Helicopter is notable for its refusal to let us off the hook. It's a world that's chillingly recognisable, seen through a glass darkly.

Helicopter by Angela Betzien, directed by Leticia Cáceres. Design by Tanja Beer, lighting by Lisa Mibus, composer Pete Goodwin. Melbourne Theatre Company, Lawler Studio, MTC Theatre, until August 17.


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Scott Crozier said...

Alison, I am really waiting for your thoughts on Lipsynch. I saw it on Saturday and have been haunted by it ever since. I have seen other Lepage productions from "Needles and Opium" in Sydney to "Seven Streams of the River Ota" in Adelaide to "Bluebeard's Castle" here. Lipsynch topped them all for me. For most of us it is our voice that defines us. It makes us aliens, it gives us status, power expresses our wants, our emotions. Lepage's production to me explored all this with his signature eye to detail and the wonderful theatrical irony and magic that makes him a director of our times. Yet with all that, nine hours after it started, he ended it with an image of an inverted Pieta - sheer beauty. There was so much more. Love to know what you thought.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Scott - I haven't worked out my life very well, in that instead of cutting back on criticism I'm writing about poetry as well. Which is very good to do, in that it's excellent to pay the kinds of attention poetry demands, but is also very demanding. Which is why I haven't quite got to Lipsynch yet. Another reason is that I had so many responses, of so many kinds. Will try to get there soon, promise, but it might be a little generalised...