Griffin Theatre Company presents The Sydney Premiere of BEACHED by Melissa Bubnic at the SBW Stables Theatre, Kings Cross.
BEACHED is a new play by Melissa Bubnic. It concerns the making of a Reality Television program (Producer: Arka Das) that covers the 235 day countdown to a gastric bypass operation for a young man, Arty, or Arthur Arthur (Blake Davis), who is disabled by obesity - an 18 year old boy weighing 400 kilograms, "the world's fattest teenager" - and his efforts on that journey, including a Pathways to Work officer's intervention, Louise (Kate Mulvany), so that Arty "can get me work so mum (Jojo /Joanne: Gia Carides) and me can't have disability any more."
The play is described on the back cover of the Currency Press publication: "Unapologetically satiric, BEACHED is also the moving story of a man imprisoned in his own body. It lays bare the mercenary nature of reality TV, and turns the microscope on society's insatiable appetite for human misery."
Satire is defined in the Macquarie Dictionary as: "a literary composition, in verse or prose, in which vices, abuses, follies etc., are held up to scorn, derision, or ridicule".
The literary scorn, derision and ridicule used for the satirical expose of the cruelties of the production of Reality Television in BEACHED is efficiently done, if without much intellectual rigour - I simply contrast and compare BEACHED with what I believe is the apex of the satirical examination of Reality Television: NETWORK written by Paddy Chayefsky and made into a film in 1976, directed by Sidney Lumet (starring Faye Dunaway,William Holden, Peter Finch and Robert Duvall.) Much is wanting in this work by Ms Bubnic, in that comparison with NETWORK - check it out, to see what I mean.
Where Chayefsky uses an actual television network and its commercial company to satirise as its subject matter, Ms Bubnic has chosen a Reality Television show that uses the subject matter of obesity, particularly, youth and obesity. That the breadth of subject matter available to build a satire of reality television around is so immense - talent shows, cooking shows or even Big Brother - and decide obesity will be the support "act", as the focus of BEACHED's satirical 'artistry' seems a very deliberate choice. We all know that obesity, or any 'food' issue, is a contemporary concern of some urgency and sensitivity, and, one that, we, generally, understand is not a vice, abuse or folly, and needs, truly, a careful and responsible usage. In fact the Director of this production, Shannon Murphy, relates a personal story of connection to the tragedy of obesity touching her life, and suggests it was one of the catalysts to move her to present this work. Ms Murphy goes on to say: "I revere Melissa Bubnic for her ability to write pop culture plays that truly explore the times we live in. ...". Now, this is where I found an insurmountable obstacle to appreciating or valuing BEACHED. The words "pop culture" leaped out at me whilst watching this play. It may be a more than apt example of the values of our "pop" culture than was appreciated by Ms Murphy.
The characters in this play are all extreme theatrical reductions, of the real world people concerned, to pencil thin caricature. The mother, with an authorial reduction, of her name Joanne, to the caricaturing diminution, Jojo, is demonised as a "feeder" (quoted as a fascination for the director) of her child's dilemma, because of her own unhappiness and desperate need not to let her only man, Arty, desert her, like her husband, Arty's father, did. This motivation revealed by Ms Bubnic as the driving force of the creation of this situation seems to me an unforgivable piece of pop-psycho-babble of the most simplistic kind (recently, I read where Glenn Close regrets enormously her reading of her character (Alex Forrest) in FATAL ATTRACTION (1987) in the light of present day health revelations concerning psychiatric illness, and more importantly, because of personal confrontations within her own extended family of this kind of illness of the psyche). Ms Carides, as Jojo, does what she can, almost heroically, to counterbalance the authorial simplifications of this human being, but is not able to, essentially, because of the writers' heavy-handed dramaturgy.
Louise (later her nomenclature is diminished to Lulu), the health facilitator to assist Arty, in finding the motivational means to begin and sustain, a health rescue plan, so as to, possibly, help him become an independent, normal member of society, with a job, is a creation of such wretched, self-imposed and exaggerated insecurities (compounded by Ms Mulvany's own choices as an actor), that lead Louise to fall in love and have a physical relationship with Arty, seem so preposterous and legally, ethically unlikely that one gasps at the poverty of thought that has gone into the dramaturgy in creating her as a viable truth. "Would this young woman, as presented in this production, be employed in the active 'fields' of disability health ?" I ask. Not likely, I suspect, based on my recent experiences - a referral for mental health assistance, rather, would be my diagnosis, based, simply on her self presentation, let alone on her observable behavioural traits revealed in her conversations - their unprovoked carelessness and lack of appropriateness would surely be a warning sign to her employers? This woman is not fit for the job, she is given.
Then, the choice of Blake Davis, a pleasantly handsome young man with impeccable glowing skin and hair, presented in a 'trendy' cut, (the actor's public appearance in the foyer after the performance is exactly the same as Arty's - neither looking ill - though Arty as suffered two heart attacks!), sitting in a fat suit costume, a huge bean bag, without any studied sense of the reality of this illness, disability - physical or psychological - seems to me a "Hollywood" theatrical romantic gesture, by the director and Costume Designer - not credited in the program - that plays into the "pop" culture image embraced by the world we live in. (You know the one that has a PRETTY WOMAN as Cinderella, instead of a sex worker? - total shtick - BEACHED's version of a pulp fiction, instead of a night at the opera, as in the above film, has the two ingenues, dancing with the stars - Fred and Ginger-like!). That the writer and director then have, in this production, in the ultimate scene of the play, a thin and charmingly attractive young man, (Arty, a further name diminutive), standing in front of us, without any of the 'scars' of the operation been shown, physical or mental, is such an untruthful climax, that anger is all that I could summon - for I had removed myself, in my seat, from watching with involvement, this travesty of real tragedy, a long time before it finished. Please view the performance captured by Darlene Coates (a non-actor, actually morbidly obese) in the film WHAT'S EATING GILBERT GRAPE? (1993) to understand my lack of ability to suspend disbelief to 'buy' into this play or production (That film also starring Johnny Depp, Leonardo DiCaprio and Juliette Lewis, directed by Lesse Hallstrom, and written by Peter Hedges). That some of the audience felt themselves "well entertained" or the play "as nourishing a night out as one would wish for", maybe, is where the satire most comfortably sits? In the audience's response!
Ms Bubnic tells us in her writer's notes in the program-play publication:
We hate fat people. I mean, we REALLY hate fat people. If you want to cut someone down, you don't call them a 'tall fuck', or a 'poorly dressed fuck' when 'you fat fuck' will do.
The extraordinary number of TV docos focusing on super morbid obesity capitalises on this hatred. We know its wrong to laugh at freaks so we dress up the content as 'medical interest' ...
And, it seemed to me that in choosing to focus on obesity as the subject matter for this satire of Reality Television, an opportunism of the same kind of salacious belittlement and disrespect, supposedly the territory of the reality television world, was mired in the text of this play. The number of laughs beached by Ms Bubnic throughout the entire play around "fat" are far too prevalent to be necessary, it begins in the very first speech ("squirming watermelon", "beluga whale"), and even on the last pages continues, " Arty secretly sucking up a liquidised McHappy meal ...", and when the exaggerations and caricature are presented so grotesquely, relentlessly, throughout the play, rather than with an objective observation, examination of the reality of the people suffering from this disability, motive of the writer for so many 'jokes' must be questioned. The prurience of many of the jokes are so offensive (take the speeches of Dr. Finkelstein and the character Dan Ryder (read the speeches and note the name), played with diabolical relish by Mr Das, on pages 17 and 40 of the script, (I refuse to quote them, to put their ugliness into the blogosphere), that I am not sure whether this play should be just regarded as another primary example of the 'meaness' of the 'pop' world that we have cultivated. We know it is wrong to laugh at freaks so why not dress this work up as a social satire of 'Reality Television'.
I wanted to call out during the performance to the writer, the director and to many of the audience who consistently found the jokes funny, a version of the famous line from THE ELEPHANT MAN (film 1980): "I am not an animal" and adapt it too "He is not an animal", "He, (they), are not a joke". The play, for me, was a 'pop' culture romance: when ever something serious marks a presence, kill it with a mean-minded joke and/or reach for theatrical sentimentality/romance. BEACHED, appeared to me as a mean appropriation of real lives of tragedy for ... for what purpose?.....??? ... I could not fathom. For me, the characters in this play are not regarded with sympathy, or understanding, but, with scorn, derision and ridicule. There seems to be a choice with this Griffin Theatre Company choice of play and production, to be taking a low road to entertainment rather than a high road of principle.
In 2012 I worked for 6 months with a number of groups of people across a range of disabilities. My world changed with an admiration for the people I met struggling as best they can with their disability. My world was enhanced by standing beside and watching the health carers and their staff, working daily with these people of disability with courage, perseverance, humour and devotion to a higher plane of behaviour than my own. I was humbled in meeting and watching the parents of these adults of disability, observing not only their devoted duty but their seemingly bottomless well of love for their children, which is a 24 hour/7 days a week commitment. To watch this superficial and mean world on stage was simply an experiencing, for me of a sad grief for so many of my heroes, newly met, so misrepresented and so thinly explicated. I was relieved that I had not invited, accompanied, any of my acquaintances with 'food' issues to sit beside me at the SBW Stables Theatre. The poster phrase: "DON'T DIS MY DISABILITY' was clearly visible to me throughout this entire production.
So, maybe I am over reacting, too sensitive, have no sense of humour. But, the final staggering gesture from this production and company was to retire downstairs to the foyer, after the performance to be offered fried chicken and plain and sugar iced donuts as a supper. Who on earth thought that this was an appropriate thing to do considering the material of the play we had just seen? It was, for me, simply a confirmation of the shallow and cheap jokiness of the whole enterprise of BEACHED. It represented to me the trivialising with a 'pop' culture joke, a world of great need of understanding.
Was there any moral compass present in anyone working on this production? Or, is mine just haywire?
That this play won the Patrick White Playwright's Award in 2010 (considering the towering morality of Mr White's work, he must be turning in his grave), and shortlisted for the 2011 Griffin Award, leaves me very, very distraught about my Australian literary culture. That it was used in the Education Program by the Melbourne Theatre Company, in April this year, leaves me aghast. There is, undoubtedly, a very good sense of Ms Bubnic's skill in structure and form, but BEACHED, for me, does not reveal any real sensitivity or appropriate concern about content, or the 'manipulation' of that content, to tell her story, to make its satiric point. Maybe BEACHED is the result of where the technical skill of form is judged to be the ultimate quality of literary work, rather than its content - post-modernist education strikes again - some, read it as cultural progress.
The production seemed to have more thought put into the idea of capturing the set and methods of a reality television show, than the actual content of the material. James Browne has designed a 'glitzy' setting and believable backdrops for the interview scenes with real aplomb. Ms Murphy, who is at the moment studying at film school, handles a two/three camera shoot of the work, slung on a movable scaffold designed by Mr Browne, with confidence. That nearly half of this stage work at the SBW Stables theatre is best seen on the two small monitor screens, either side of the stage, because interviews are mostly held off-stage, or, at awkwardly positioned places, and that some of the principal confrontations are blocked by camera-holders filming those said scenes, made me wonder if I had come to a theatre or a TV studio, as an audience, to monitor a show surrounded, now and again, by live action. That wonder, I guess, is another post modern concern -a further advance on our cultural expressions, in the theatre, it seems. As usual, the lighting by Verity Hampson does more than one thought possible in this space. - remarkably dependable and inspired an artist.
I was most uncomfortable for most of this play and production. So, check Jason Blake's, Eight Nights a Week, and Diana Simmonds', Stage Noise blog sites for a different reaction, and then make up your own mind, for I, certainly, seem to be in a minority in my response.
I remarked to a writer friend, that I tremble at a possible satiric play based around Vladimir's Putin's Gay Solution Policy, next year, somewhere in Sydney. Maybe, we'll have a pile of "fat faggot" jokes. A double banger!!! Kapoom! All in a satirical vein, of course.