Happy New ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Happy New

Happy New, by Brendan Cowell. Directed by Ben Harkin, with Dai Paterson, Angus Sampson and Jude Beaumont. The Store Room, North Fitzroy, June 4-20.

The chief virtue of Happy New is the energy of its writing. Happy New, the second play by young Sydney playwright, Brendan Cowell, concerns two brothers who as children were locked in a chicken coop for a few months by their mother. As a result they are agoraphobes who never leave their tiny flat, and during the course of the play they revert to the chicken mentality they absorbed during their childhood trauma. A third character is a television journalist who has turned the chicken brothers into celebrities and is having an affair with the apparently less psychotic of the pair.

What ensues is a somewhat confused indictment of the nature of contemporary celebrity, the way the media objectifies human beings into consumable items, and eventually of the cannibalistic nature of "reality" television, which devours reality itself. This is interspersed with mordant reflections on the nature of power and human relationships. The play climaxes with the brothers' self-destructive regression into the chicken trauma of their childhoods, in a kind of fowlish Lord of the Flies.

The play enacts a number of neuroses, mainly through the monologic aphasia of its characters. Their inability to communicate despite the avalanches of words they tip over each other reinforces how isolated they are, atomised selves in an over-mediated society. Often the monologues are lists, rather in the manner of the endless lists of consumer objects in American Psycho, and with as little evolution; a relentless accumulation covering the deep void of the contemporary individual. The only shared experience is between the brothers and, as becomes clear, this is based on the power of one over the other, a brutal co-dependency which becomes an emblem for all human relationships.

The play's argument never quite transcends the banality of its root observations (that human beings, like chickens, have hierarchical social structures; that the mass media is parasitic). But despite a modicum of over-writing, there is much to like in the vigor of its dialogue and in how Cowell is grappling theatrically with the ideas he raises. In particular, he evades the vice of exposition. Coherency is not an unarguable good in theatre, but a little more in this play might have helped. Part of its problem is, I think, the difficulty of critiqueing something within its own terms of reference; the play exploits the mass media system of values its also seeks to indict, and this creates an internal conumdrum the play is unable to overcome.

This dilemma is amplified by Ben Harkin's direction, which places Cowell's linguistic riffs in what is basically a naturalistic set, framed as a chicken coop (but also as a television) and then directs it as if it were a tv comedy sketch. The lighting and sound are minimal and literal, and Harkin is never quite sure what to do with his actors when they are not speaking, which often leaves large parts of the very tiny stage as simply dead space. This makes the stage strangely static, and has the effect of fracturing the play itself into a series of strangely unrelated vignettes.

The acting is almost all mugging, as if grotesque emphasis were the same as performative power. I found myself admiring Jude Beaumont's lung capacity and physical expertise on heels, but little else in a performance remarkably free of nuance or feeling. Dai Paterson gives a perfectly fine performance, but the only time I perceived any real dynamic on stage was in a few moments from Angus Sampson, who most of the time I enjoyed least of all: he revealed in these moments the possibility of some real power.

The direction effectively neutralises what might have been moments of actual feeling and gives every action the air of occurring in a consequenceless vacuum. This is all cartoonish pow and bam interspersed with wisecracks, and it's hard to believe for a second that anything that happens to these characters actually matters. Uneasy reflection is dispersed by easy laughs; and as the bleakness at the core of the play is obscured, the comedy shades comfortably to beige.

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