Arts Radar in association with B Sharp presents THOM PAIN (based on nothing) by Will Eno at the Downstairs Theatre at Belvoir Theatre.
For Thom Pain, I read, initially Tom Paine. Tom (Thomas) Paine (1737-1809) agitator, activist involved in The American War of Independence and The French Revolution wrote among other things THE RIGHTS OF MAN (1791-92) and THE RIGHTS OF MAN, Part Two (1794). After falling foul of Robespierre, in France, he was rescued and returned to the USA in 1802, where he was ostracized as an atheist and free thinker and died (1809), alone and in poverty. His fame lay not in his originality of thought but in his passion and directness.
This ‘Thom Pain’ of the American writer Will Eno is a long monologal (80 minutes) reflection by a contemporary, young existentialist-man, maybe an Everyman trying to make sense of his world in 2004. (This was the year of the first performances of the play.) This Thom Pain is, appositionally, full of languor and indirectness, laid back and self-deprecating, but still gives the impression of a free thinker, mind you, a stream of consciousness thinker, spilling self-consciously the impulse of his living but vital thoughts, and, in its own way is just as agitating in its activism and aspiring desperation, not, like his name sake, to die “alone or in poverty”. He is looking for the rights of his everyman fellowman and looks to validate his own unexceptional hurts and foibles in the commonality of all our familiar, mirroring hurts and foibles.
Mr Eno from Brooklyn, discovered the theatre late in his life (at 28) and with the encouragement of the Edward F. Albee Foundation for writers (and others), escaped his real job occupation of stock broker and began to ruminate and write. It seems to me, and I contemplated this as I watched, that this work is coming from someone who has had a reality check. And I guess if you worked on Wall Street down near The World Trade Center buildings in the early part of this century you would have an existing experience to cauterise you into this place of Who am I? Where am I? Why am I? What am I for? etc rumination. This Thom Pain is an ordinary guy and is finding his ordinariness a discovery and a treasure and a curiosity. The stories that he tells us of his electrocuted dog, his bee stings, his romantic attachments and detachments, amongst much else, are just nothings really. Nothings like everyone else’s. To quote from the play: "We’re on planet Earth, a planet in a solar system, one of a trillion solar systems in our galaxy, which is one of a billion galaxies in the Universe. And you think you’re pretty special. Math. There’s a lot of zeroes out there. What can one man do?...... Nothing, really. Or I don’t know." Thom, like you and I, is fairly insignificant and yet, since Thom can contemplate his life so endlessly to us, contemplate his metaphoric navel and to get us into a space - a theatre and tell us about it, maybe he will have meaning. And if we buy it, meaning for us as well. "What can one man do?... Nothing really. Or I don’t know."
Sam Strong has created with his Designer (Claude Marcos) an elegant black space-a set of smooth black flats, a clean black floor with a simple high gloss black chair, warmly lit. With his Lighting Designer (Danny Pettingill) Mr Strong moves our focus around the space to give us changing visual perspectives to keep us visually stimulated, accompanied by a very spare and atmospheric piano score - to gently lull and attend to our concentration, in case it defocuses (Kelly Ryall). The play begins in an absolute blackness and after a pause a match is lit as if to light a cigarette and we see the flash image of Thom (Luke Mullins). “It is snuffed out” says Mr Eno. Thom speaks in the dark; “How wonderful to see you all.” A second match is lit and the same happens. “I should quit.” There is a pause and then in the blackness we receive a definition of the word FEAR. Later, of FELICIFIC: "causing or intending to cause happiness." Depending on your sensibility on the day, the performance you attend, this exercise in the theatre could have you leave the space happy. OR. You could also leave, unhappy.
The character of Thom talks to us, interacts with us, but never gives us time to respond - not daring too. I guess, it might deflect Mr Eno’s Thom from his journey. (Two other, uncredited characters are in the play, and their theatrical presence imposed by the writer felt oddly manipulative and false. It took me sometime to trust Thom Pain and these other “pretend your audience for the audience” cut my belief from under my metaphoric feet. I don’t know whether I do or did ever get to trust Thom or Mr Eno. My intellect does but my theatrical belief does not.) The theatrical problem of seeming to engage us and yet not is another of the flaws of my participation in the writing. I felt I had to surrender to the string pulling, like a yo yo, spun away, retracted back, of Mr Eno’s artifice and accept the characters ground rule needs of pretending to invite connection and yet holding us apart as a theatre audience. You and I, never really, we. There is a kind of aloofness and condescension in the character. Last year in a B Sharp phenomenon, AN OAK TREE, I felt a similar invitation to enter an exploration of MAGIC, IMAGINATION and FEAR - key words in this play - and I delightfully did, but the magic and imagination is all prescribed here, pre-structured. AN OAK TREE was a free fall. There was no reason to fear. This play may be just too neat. Post-modernist chic.
Luke Mullins dressed in a plain, dark suit, white shirt, dark tie, no socks begins the first page of the text in the dark. All we have is his voice. Mr Mullin’s voice has an arresting timbre and note range. What it didn’t have was articulatory definition. This may have been, partly, a lack of accurate imagery. No careful, clear, breathed image, no accuracy in articulation, especially in the dark. I found it difficult to hear and observe. I could not see with my ears what Mr Mullins was saying. I was lost very early in the experience. When the lighting state allows us to see as well, there is a playfulness in the vocal expression but it seems to be attached intellectually - ideas, and later an actorly set of feelings, but rarely a sense of authentic, in the moment feeling. The truth of the verbal articulations were intellectually imposed and not coming from the mix of both – the head and the heart. Mr Mullins is physically very fluid and has charm. It is the passion that Mr Mullins and Mr Strong have for the play and the role of THOM PAIN, that tended to dominate the performance that I saw, not the living, breathing passionate Thom Pain. There was no real pain just a theatrical one. Reading the London reviews the performance by the actor, there, seems to have been astonishing and was at least an equal to the writer for this play’s success. Some critics recall Samuel Beckett in talking of it. Although this is a good performance it is not “very” good and this play although an intellectual stimulating tease, it is not near Mr Beckett’ profundity.
When one reflects back to the monologal experience, one need only go back to Gillian Jones in HOMEBODY/KABUL or Robyn Nevin in THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING to recall the need for the great experience of the actor’s instrument to bring it to sustained life. Detailed technical bravado and detailed imaginative accuracy. TALKING HEADS at The Sydney Theatre (not to pass over the TV experience) is another example that just flashed back to memory: Maggie Smith, a miracle of technical and imagery articulation. Mr Mullins gives a very creditable performance and he certainly accumulates a passionate performance as the play comes to its end but I trust it might be better in a few more years with more challenges and intense skills under his belt.
I am ambivalent about this experience and I do believe it will come down to personal taste and mood on the night for you to be: Happy or Unhappy. I feel much the same as one of the London critics of the SOHO Theatre performance “This is thus a quintessentially theatrical performance, but one that could unravel were a heckler in the audience to take up the challenges seemingly on offer but subtly withdrawn” John Thaxter.
P.S. I find it a little worrying that Sam Strong who, in his very copious professional resume, tells us of his very close connection to writers and is the Literary Associate, as a dramaturg, at Company B, has not thought to put any notes about the writer WILL ENO and his career in the program. To forget the writer is to exclude the original source of all this further creative effort. An acknowledgment and history is useful for some of the audience. And may maintain and direct a further interest in the writer.
Playing now until 16 August.
For more information or to book click here.