Toby ~ theatre notes

Saturday, July 24, 2004


Toby by Abe Pogos, directed by Catherine Hill, designed by Peter Mumford, lighting by Richard Vabre,with Tim Stitz, Adam Cass, Janine Watson, Christopher Brown, Benjamin Fuller and Tess Butler. La Mama at the Courthouse Theatre, Carlton, until July 31.

The stage is empty, apart from a huge wooden desk on which sits a giant typewriter. Seated at the desk, the CRITIC is industriously at work, staring vacantly into space and drumming his fingers.

CRITIC: Tum te dum. Tum te dum.

The CRITIC picks up a book from the desk and prowls restlessly, muttering. Reads the back of the book and is illuminated. Leaps back to the desk and types, copying from the book.

CRITIC: A fable. "A timely and darkly comic fable, Toby explores racism, genocide and the politics of power." Oh yes. That's good, that's very good. But then...what about... the set? The set! The set, the acting, the directing....all these require attention...and they have written nothing here about the set!

The CRITIC throws the book down on the desk. He is disconsolate.

CRITIC: Why is it so hard to write? For example - if I was writing about - Joseph Roth - the words would fly off the tips of my fingers like - like bushflies in summer. But instead, I feel like I'm swimming through molasses. It's not a terrible play. If it was terrible, I would feel inspired, I would be inhabited by a daemonic wit. And yet, it's no work of genius, either, so all my sensitivities, my - aesthetic antennae - are to no avail. They twitch sadly, lost and discombobulated...


How to say - anything at all... It's the playwright's fault.

The PLAYWRIGHT enters.

PLAYWRIGHT: Did you say it was my fault?

CRITIC: Yes, it's your bloody fault. The first page or so, I thought to myself, hey, something is happening here. There's Toby, the village idiot, and your other character -

PLAYWRIGHT: Christie -

CRITIC: Christie, that's right. Having an argument. The idiot and the ambitious friend who is betraying him. But then, what happens?


CRITIC: Suddenly it's not about these people arguing, instead they're talking about the Law. Suddenly a whole lot of imponderables and abstracts enter the conversation. Suddenly the life goes out of it.

PLAYWRIGHT: But the directing is good.

CRITIC: Yes, the directing is good. Very quick, very fluid, so the audience doesn't get bored - all that getting people on and off stage is done very well - although sometimes the performances are a little - a little -


CRITIC: Something like that. But I think that's your fault too.

PLAYWRIGHT: Is everything my fault?

CRITIC: Usually. Usually. You see, if you're dealing in imponderables and abstractions, if the characters are telling us all the time what they're thinking instead of, well, just thinking it - or even not just thinking it, but being it, at a level below consciousness - then it all becomes a bit too self conscious. And seeing as it's set (The CRITIC checks the back of the book) in a nineteenth century European village - don't you think it could have been a little more - specific? More like a nineteenth century European village?

PLAYWRIGHT: It's a play, not a documentary. Aren't you being pedantic?

CRITIC: It didn't seem like a nineteenth century European village at all. Maybe that wouldn't have mattered, if I had believed the characters. But there were only a couple of times when I did.

The PLAYWRIGHT is suddenly burdened by the sadness and existential weight of life. There is a pause.

CRITIC: And yet - when I walked into the theatre, I thought, oh, what a beautiful set - just autumn leaves strewn over the stage, and a couple of branches, and it was a real wood - and I walked over the leaves to my seat, smelling the autumn, feeling the papery stuff beneath my feet - and that beautiful auburn light -

The CRITIC starts typing, inspired.

PLAYWRIGHT: I wanted to show how easy it is for people to become - other. For people to be made afraid of anyone different, and then to become cruel and murderous.

CRITIC: The Blood Libel.

PLAYWRIGHT: Yes, all that.

CRITIC: It's worthy. I don't deny that. I can see why you've attached the Blood Libel to Gypsies rather than Jews: it's been used against all sorts of minorities for millennia, including Roma, so it focuses on the mechanism rather than the issue of, say, anti-Semitism. And there are some terrific bits.

PLAYWRIGHT: I'll write the review for you, if you like.

CRITIC: There are a couple of really interesting performances. That Tim Stitz, who plays the idiot, he's something, isn't he? So unafraid, so full of young energy - But I just don't understand why that girl Joan - played by Tess Butler - had to be so Pollyanna. She seemed the most symbolic of the characters, she might as well have had "WOMAN" tattooed on her forehead, how the men all owned her, how obedient she was, how her sexuality was her only means of power. I didn't believe her for a second. What can a performer do with that? It all ends up being like the shape of things, rather than the things themselves. A little dull, maybe. Like this, to be honest, like this conversation, which is all rather -

PLAYWRIGHT: But some terrific bits.

CRITIC; Oh, yes, but where's the whole thing? I reckon you should have cut most of the scenes in half. (CRITIC holds up a piece of paper and dramatically tears it in two.) Like that! But tell me. I just didn't get the Silver Alien.

PLAYWRIGHT: That's what everyone says.

CRITIC: I thought the pods that hung around the play were some kind of fungus. I mean some kind of real fungus, not an alien creature. So when the Silver Alien first appeared, I just didn't connect it with the pods at all. And how did that fit with the nineteenth century European village thing? But anyway, there was this Silver Alien... So then I thought, well, the pods are supposed to be ugly, disgusting, the lowest forms of life, and when people try to kill them they are blinded by some poison that squirts out of them, and then the Silver Alien - who is a kind of pod or something - promises some kind of transcendent, pure moral life - and - I guess, it's about some kind of polarising perception, how an idea of absolute Good creates an idea of absolute Evil... But the more I thought about it, the less it made any sense. The metaphor seemed awfully confused to me. I thought maybe it was something about the lowest being the highest, about the meek inheriting God's kingdom, all of that. But then, I also wondered if it was a hallucination...


CRITIC: I thought and thought. Racism isn't about hallucinations and madness. Most racists aren't mad, even if their realities are strangely skewed. It's about a certain kind of emotional logic. I can see how you're trying to illuminate these issues - but aren't you meaning it all a little - earnestly? And doesn't the Silver Alien, and the nineteenth century European village which is not like a village at all - isn't this somehow a way of avoiding the very banality of evil? When neighbours start killing each other, isn't it somehow a lot simpler and a lot stupider and a lot more complicated and a lot more brutal than that?

And then, I remembered Woycek. Some of the scenes in Toby are very reminiscent of Woycek. But in Georg Buchner's play, there's no recourse to complicated plotting or any structural machinery which points towards a meaning. Buchner relies instead on an incandescent emotional realism which welds together the impressionistic nature of the play's structure and argument. It's why Buchner is still so modern, three centuries later. He didn't worry about other kinds of logic, about connective tissue - he took the essential parts of a situation and exposed them with an unflinching rawness, and it is left to the witnesses to draw their own conclusions. Even despite its intentions, perhaps, Toby still feels as if it is reaching for a moral, the instructive couplet which neatly ties up the fable; but the kinds of issues the playwright wishes to address - genocide, racism - just won't fold up into a moral...

Mumbling, the CRITIC starts typing again, then stops, defeated, and stares into space.


Picture: Tim Stitz as Toby

La Mama Theatre

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