In the last two weeks I’ve seen two shows at The Blue Room with animals in the title and narcissism in their sights. By ‘narcissism’ I don’t just mean the psychological condition (or even the full-blown personality disorder), but the cultural ideology that defines contemporary consumer society (and arguably finds its political counterpart in the global rise of identity politics). Narcissism in this sense is the successor to the individualism that accompanied capitalism throughout its history.
As such, narcissism is to be distinguished from individualism primarily in terms of the fundamental hollowness, emptiness and exchangeability of the narcissistic ego as opposed to the properly individualised one. The self becomes pure form without content: in other words, a commodity – much like the increasingly simulated objects and experiences it consumes. In the sphere of culture, information or ‘knowledge’ (each with its own designated post-industrial ‘economy’) much the same transformation takes place – with the same primacy of form over content, style over substance, medium over message. This is the world we live in now – and make theatre in (and about). If you grew up in the last 20 years or so, it’s the only world you know.
This is the world – and the generation – that’s reflected in much of the work I see at The Blue Room. The venue provides a home and support structure for the development of independent theatre artists, especially emerging ones, here in Perth – but in truth I don’t know if there’s anywhere else like it in the country. Disclaimer: I’m on the Blue Room Board now, as well as being an occasional guest artist (though I’m getting a little long in the tooth to be called ‘emerging’ any more). Moreover, I don’t see everything that goes on – there are about 14 shows a year in the two main seasons, not to mention the explosion of activity during Fringe in January to February. Nonetheless, I’d venture to say that more than any other theatre in Perth (and perhaps elsewhere) it ‘holds the mirror up’ – not necessarily ‘to nature’ as Hamlet suggested, but to the flawed world of its audience, and especially its fledgling artists.
Rabbithead is a co-production by Little Y Theatre Company and Whatshesaid Productions, imaginatively directed by Ian Sinclair and co-devised and performed by Holly Garvey and Violette Ayad, with cartoon-style set and costumes by Tessa Darcey, simple but effective lighting by Chris Donnelly and a moody sound design by Catlips (aka Perth electronic composer/DJ Katy Campbell). It’s a twisted re-imagining of Barbara Baynton’s classic Australian Gothic short story The Chosen Vessel. Here however the isolated bush wife has become two twenty-something Perth housemates (‘Holly’ and ‘Violette’) addicted to their smartphones and sharing dreams of romantic/material success; and the mood has switched from nineteenth-century rural horror to twenty-first-century urban kitsch.
The luridly camp pantomime surface of the script, staging and performances nevertheless conceals a layer of David Lynch-like surrealism that manifests itself in moments of poetry and menace – which are in their own way surprisingly faithful to the eerie spirit of Baynton’s original. ‘Violette’s’ creepy boyfriend Bottleshop Rob is literally a cockroach (played by a Holly in a cockroach-costume complete with multiple roving feelers) who conceives a batch of eggs with her; ‘Holly’s’ one-night-stand pickup is a balding middle-aged Lothario (played by Violette with a scraped-back wig and demented stare) who works in the resources industry and gets high snorting lines of sugar; and a pet rabbit that dies in mysterious circumstances ends up being reincarnated in a truly monstrous form. The set is a mountain of white cotton-wool fairy-floss through which puppets and performers emerge, crawl, frolic and disappear, and the action is punctuated by spectacularly choreographed Britney Spears karaoke dance sequences. (Another disclaimer: the show also features a voiceover track ‘narrated especially for you by Humphrey Bower’ – which I did as a favour in production week without reading the rest of the script or seeing any of the show).
Touchingly naïve or terrifyingly self-absorbed, the characters in Rabbithead are all victims of narcissism in its various forms. ‘Violette’s’ wide-eyed but deluded fascination with pop culture and info-tainment; ‘Holly’s’ frustrated and destructive obsession with marriage, money, status and success; and the rampant selfishness of the male characters – all reflect and refract the anti-social personality disorder of the anti-society that surrounds them, epitomised by interchangeably insubstantial soft-porn girl-stars like Britney Spears, Miley Cyrus or whoever’s currently trending on Twitter, YouTube, MySpace or Facebook (even the names of the websites allude to their ultimately narcissistic function).
Performances, production and script were sometimes a little rough around the edges, but that didn’t really impede the satirical impact of the show. Perhaps it could have been a little darker, a little more finessed; a little more Barbara Baynton, perhaps, and a little less Britney Spears; but to me, it spoke directly, painfully and accurately of the materialism of the world (and the town) I live in. The audience laughed a lot, and I laughed with them (and sometimes, cringingly, all on my own) – but was it the mocking laughter of derision, or the rueful laughter of self-recognition? In a narcissistic hall of mirrors, who can say?
Elephents (the misspelling is intentional) preceded Rabbithead in The Blue Room Studio with a season that ended a few weeks ago. It was the first production by much-heralded new Perth indie outfit The Last Great Hunt, which somewhat confusingly includes artists from various former and ongoing groups including The Duck House, Weeping Spoon and Side Pony. Elephents is a new play by Jeffrey Jay Fowler, directed by Katt Osborne and performed by Jeffrey Jay, Adrienne Daff, Gita Bezzard and Pete Townsend, with deliberately minimal design by Tarryn Gill and lighting by Chris Isaacs. It also features songs by Jeffrey Jay and Brett Hill, which were sung by the cast and accompanied by Brett on digital keyboard (and occasional electric guitar).
Essentially it’s a darkly comic off-Broadway musical: tightly written dialogue-scenes interspersed with songs in which characters express their feelings and thoughts: the ‘elephents’ in the room, so to speak. The title also refers to a real elephant whose recent death in the zoo serves as an emotional catalyst for the plot, in which three awkwardly matched couples and at least one loose unit (all played by the same four actors, with the help of some nifty wig-work) negotiate their discontents. The biggest ‘elephent’ however lies just outside the door: an accelerated level of global warming, indicated in the production by an orange light that became visible whenever someone entered the room (whereupon they routinely and without comment wiped the sweat from their faces and hands with a towel).
Underlying this is the sense that these characters (like the girls and their men in Rabbithead) are completely absorbed in themselves and their feelings, and have completely unrealistic expectations about their lives and their world, which is clearly going up in flames. The theatrical form of the show reflected this extreme pitch of dramatic irony: stylised costumes, wigs and characterisations; and a deliberate poverty of means in terms of lighting, set, sound, music – and even singing ability. The songs themselves weren’t particularly original or accomplished either musically or lyrically – and varied considerably in execution – but I felt that was least partly intentional, because their role was to expose the characters and their illusions (for example, two brothers who are singer-musicians with wildly divergent and incongruous notions of their own talent). As such they have something in common with songs in the theatre of Brecht – which notoriously work best when sung by performers like Lotte Lenya (who couldn’t technically sing).
Elephents was a much more ambitious work than Rabbithead, and Jeffrey Jay is a subtle and devious writer (as well as being an extremely entertaining actor). In fact the overall aesthetic of the production and the company (including the house-style of the actor-devisors and director Katt Osborne) was emotionally cooler, more covert and underhand than the brazenly messy broad brushstrokes and deliberately overheated histrionics of Ian Sinclair and his collaborators. Perhaps for that very reason I couldn’t help feeling that for all its sophisticated irony Elephents didn’t quite hit its target – perhaps overshooting it, or even rebounding on itself; whereas Rabbithead for all its crass vulgarity landed its punches fair and square. In both cases, though, I left The Blue Room feeling that there’s a new generation of theatre-makers who are struggling with what it means to have a self, a voice, relationships or integrity in a narcissistic world – and that in that struggle there’s at least an artistic authenticity that’s worth watching and listening to.