audience conversations, conversation, Dramaturgical Analysis, Theatre

audience conversation: the unspoken word is joe and the ritual slaughter of gorge mastromas

On Sunday Bridget Mackey and I saw two shows back to back, Zoey Dawson’s The Unspoken Word Is Joe and Denis Kelly’s The Ritual Slaughter of Gorge Mastromas. We interviewed each other about them in the car between shows. It is worth mentioning that both of us are very, very happy with seeing shows that ‘upset’ and ‘sicken’ us, as these did. Please do not take our reactions as any kind of condemnation. We were so very into it.

Show One: The Unspoken Word Is Joe

Fleur: Okay. We’re recording. And we’re recording as we drive from one show to the next.

So what just happened?

Bridget: We just saw The Unspoken Word Is Joe, a play that’s been around for a while although that was the first time I’d seen it and I got a bit upset by it.

Fleur: What was it that upset you?

Photo: Sarah Walker

Photo: Sarah Walker

Bridget: I think it’s because… Well because I’m a writer and it’s really hard to make work. It’s really hard to see a fictional writer, who I know is a real writer making fun of herself and her own indulgences, but I also know that they are my indulgences too. I think we do have to laugh at ourselves and I was kind of annoyed at myself for getting upset by it.

Fleur: But it is a painful play. We’re laughing at the same time as being disturbed. I do wonder what the experience is for someone not within the industry.

Bridget: I don’t know. I don’t know. Is that how people outside of theatre generally see theatre people? As this indulgent, over the top little world of drama queens and –

Fleur: And all sleeping with each other. I’m pretty sure that’s a key component in the outsider imaginings of theatre. I was at a Monash Student Association awards night last year and they announced Student Theatre saying “we come to student theatre to change the world” and a guy at the next table whispered “and have group sex”.

Bridget: Well yeah. That too.

Fleur: Column A, Column B.

The thing that distresses me watching this play – And I think it is a good kind of distress! I’m not saying I’m distressed and I don’t think this theatre should be happening! I think this is a very intentional trauma! But something that distresses me in it is that it is very specifically about the female artist as the hysterical woman.

Art comes from a place of vulnerability. I think, “Is this the only way women can be perceived as being vulnerable? To be this hysterical, blabbering, public, humiliating, self-loathing, women-loathing mess?”

But it’s also interesting because it makes her the very stereotypically female mess whilst, at the same time, making her the sexual aggressor and other things that women don’t get to be all that often. That silhouette of her wrapped around Matt Hickey is fucking amazing.

Bridget: And she’s – not only the sexual aggressor – but she is confident, in her own way. In her own work! She does hold power over other people because of that. She’s saying to the male actors “I’ll put you in that role”.

(After thought: I just want to add that, while this is true, this is a line that gets a laugh of derision from the audience.)

Photo: Sarah Walker

Photo: Eugene Teh

Fleur: I think so often about what Joanna Murray-Smith said to us during our Masters: how being a writer is a constant battle between your ego and your self-doubt and you’ve got to make sure that your ego just wins or else you’ll never write again. This play is the moment where this writer’s ego loses the battle.

Bridget: The direction is pretty great. That moment where Natasha reads out that monologue and is lit so beautifully! It is a really stunning. Like, you do really connect to that monologue. Even though you’ve heard it before, there’s also this moment of “But theatre is magic. It can be powerful.” You can still be fooled by it and connect with it even though it is in the middle of a show that you know is a play within a play and you know it’s fake and you know the joke.

Fleur: I think that moment is so important because, as you are blown away, the ‘writer’ hiding under a chair with her knickers hanging out. She is in this moment of absolute surrender to her neuroses and absolute emotive chaos but we can still be fooled, still love and still have that moment of falling into something created from a place of messy, chaotic, fucked up-ness. From that fucked up-ness can come this moment where someone is just glowing – just glowing up there. Yeah.

Shall we leave it there? And we will re-convene in a few hours.

Play two: The Ritual Slaughter of Gorge Mastromas

Fleur: Okay. This is Fleur And Bridget In The Car, Part Two. So, just as the show was about to start again after interval, you said –

Bridget: I said, “I’m actually really worried”. I know one other work by the playwright really well – Osama the Hero – so I knew from the very start of the play “he’s not giving us this information to be nice. He’s giving us this information and he’s going to use it to fuck with us.” I mean, I think what I like about his writing is that you don’t know where it’s gonna go. It goes to surprising places so I was kind of terrified after interval. I was just like “You’re just going to do something! Something awful is going to happen to us.”

Photo: Jodie Hutchinson

Photo: Jodie Hutchinson

Fleur: Which is actually a really – It is actually surprisingly rare in theatre to really be surprised by the text at every turn. Like that wonderful moment when she says, “Because I have stopped time.” Each time you figure out what this play is…

You know, you begin the play and it’s this group narrative. And it’s beautiful. A beautiful act of storytelling. And actually the text at that point reminds me of The Virgin Suicides. There’s something about that almost mystical beauty of adolescence that’s both ugly and gorgeous at the same time. It makes me think particularly of this moment where a boy expresses his love for this girl by stepping off the roof of his parent’s house. He stands on the edge of the roof, declares, “I love her”, jumps, falls all of a meter and a half, dusts himself off and walks away, sated because he’s found a way to express it. Something about the description in that first act made me think of that: the beautiful ugliness of children and young messed up, desperate love.

So you think that is what the play is. And then it changes and becomes this weird corporate… thing. And then it changes again and becomes this mystical thing –

Bridget: And then it is almost gothic!

It is really refreshing to see something that is epic. Well not, like, epic but a tragedy, like a Greek tragedy. But at the same time there’s nothing really epic about it. He’s just a very bad man. He’s a very bad, selfish man. The resistance of the play to settle in any one style is like the confusion of trying to understand a world in which some people have nothing and some people have everything. And there’s this disconnect with that.

Fleur: At the end I was thinking about the title of the play and why it was called that. And partly I feel like again it is Denis Kelly finding another way to surprise us at every turn because what is says is “I’m gonna kill him. I’m gonna kill him in this ritualised, destructive way.” I think it’s the slaughter of goodness. The ritualised destruction of any goodness – of any skerrick of the person that we were introduced to in that first act. That Gorge is slaughtered over the course of the play. But because of the set ups in the scenes, we are kind of waiting for him to die. And it feels a bit of an anti-climax and I’m into that in theatre. I like the dissatisfying ending because that means it defied my expectations.

So how did it make you feel?

Bridget: I mean I felt pretty sick watching it but I enjoy that. I think it is rare that theatre really makes you feel something that strongly. It was kind of the same feeling as watching The Wolf of Wall Street! And they didn’t give us any answers as to why he was this bad. There’s nothing we can do about him being like this and that seems true to life.

Fleur: Wolf of Wall Street is a really good analogy because there is no reason for those people to be as ugly and selfish as they are either. In this play I feel like that mystical element gives an optional out: “Oh we could blame the gods. Would that make you feel better? We could blame them.”

Bridget: Yeah! But it’s a club! It’s a secret club that they are in once they choose to be in it.

Fleur: And there is no point in the play where we see him using his powers. Everything that we see after that deal is immensely human because people are bad enough on their own without being able to stop time.

I make a sound that I’m going to describe as a series of consonants. Something like “Grrllllk!”

I don’t know how I’m going to transcribe that noise I just made. Thanks Fleur of the Past.

Photo: Jodie Hutchinson (I presume)

Photo: Jodie Hutchinson (I presume)

Bridget: It was on such a big scale without being a melodrama.

Fleur: Yeah. It is a step beyond the world. Despite being just the span of one man’s life, it feels bigger than that. Such good writing.

Bridget: He’s so fucking good. So fucking good. It made me excited about theatre.

Fleur: Yeah. It’s one of those scripts that makes me want to run and write. I want to surprise people! I want to have people leaning forward as I continually did throughout this text, even on second viewing!

Bridget: I’ve been trying to find alternatives to drama or to the main stage family drama and I’ve been thinking about how things can be epic and important without being that kind of a work and I think this play succeeds in doing that. It’s about something really important but it’s told in such a surprising way. I feel like the writer has tried to think about the audience’s experience of it.

Fleur: And yet, it also feels almost effortless at times. I feel that the first section was written on one of those beautiful days when you sit down and a first draft just pours out of you. There is such a flow to it. It doesn’t feel laboured. Its one of those light days of writing when it is just skipping out and you’re saying yes to everything that comes into your brain.

Bridget: Yeah. I can get out here!

Fleur: No it’s alright! I can get you closer because there’s the U-turn spot up a bit further.

Disclaimer: Bridget Mackey and I both work with MKA: Theatre of New Writing, who produced The Unspoken Word Is Joe.

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