Dramaturgical Analysis, Responses, Theatre

dream home: on desperation, alienation, passivity and the smell of meat

DREAM HOME by Emilie Collyer, directed by Luke Kerridge

THE LOBBY Give people a space to arrive into. It doesn’t have to be a lobby. It can be a passage. An alcove. If you arrive in a living space, that space will become transitional; a thoroughfare on the way to other rooms.

In many ways, I fear writing about Dream Home. My initial response was not intellectual. It was physical. It brought out a symphony of nervous ticks. In the foyer afterwards I interrupted conversations to turn off neglected power points and I left Northcote Townhall drumming the most calming rhythm I know:

1 2 3 4 5 1 2 3 4 5 1 2 1 2 1 2 1 2 3 4 5 1 2 3 4 5 1 2 1 2 1 2 1 2 3 4 5

The play was the theatrical equivalent of a long string of jumpy, obsessive twitches. Emilie Collyer’s jolting words were wound so tight that they spasmed in the mouths of the actors, all of whom had the desperate look of creatures attempting to pass for human with varying levels of success. The production and text combined to create an alien world, made stranger by its familiarity; more claustrophobic by its open plan dining rooms. It was so unified, so absorbing that I was sucked into their rhythmic convulsions:

1 2 3 4 5 1 2 3 4 5 1 2 1 2 1 2 1 2 3 4 5 1 2 3 4 5 1 2 1 2 1 2 1 2 3 4 5

DREAM HOME, promo image by Sarah Walker

DREAM HOME, promo image by Sarah Walker

THE KITCHEN The kitchen has to be functional. It is, above all else, a workspace. Be careful of the size: there is a fine balance between cluttered and a space so big that you will have to walk back and forwards as you move from appliance to bench space. Remember that this room will mostly be used at night. Lighting is important. You don’t want shadows.

So this couple built a house instead of a child, a house that is simultaneously their dream and the end of dreaming, their triumph and demise. Their childlessness is built into its very joins and rivets. Possible futures, possible children and possible romances have been sealed behind the new wall, which glows with unfulfilled promise. This is a house that must be occupied. It demands inhabitants, guests and the latest appliances, that melt cheese to the perfect texture.

It made me think of an aeroplane: all those people tied to specific, labelled chairs, fed individually wrapped pieces of food and mass produced pieces of entertainment to keep them happy and make them forget how helpless they are and how far away the ground is.

In many ways, I found the characters as individuals to be somewhat irrelevant to Dream Home. They were part of the fauna of this world but it was the house that held my attention. Structurally too, an argument could be made for the eradication of almost any of the guests, for each opened a narrative almost too big to explore. Every one of them was the outsider in their own particular way. And yet, their collective presence adds greatly to the script. Yes: a play could be written about a couple and their movie-star friend or the architect who sees through their walls or the young woman who arrives bleeding on their doorstep, the soldier whose body is betraying him or the ravenous young man. Each of these stories could be separate and yet it is the community they create – a community made up entirely of mismatched pieces of humanity – that creates the bizarre and intoxicating atmosphere of danger, regret and sex, cloaked in the smell of cooking meat. The presence of Dean, a man born whole and hungry from within the walls of the house, further adds to the sense that all conversations and all actions are being manipulated by the building itself.

I write like this today because Dream Home made me feel like I was wandering in and out of rooms at a party, dipping into conversations, hoping to find one that did not reek of desperation. No such luck. What makes this ensemble of characters work is that they illustrate that this is not an illness contained to one room or one couple: the house infects all who enter it.

THE BEDROOM Light is important in all rooms but in the bedroom it is crucial to get it right. Try having windows on multiple sides. This will mean that the room changes with the seasons. Ideally, you want fresh air. You want a sense of calm and generosity. You want peace.

Guests never arrive in Dream Home. They appear or are discovered as if a giant child’s hand has reached into their dolls house and added another misshapen plastic figurine. It gave me the sensation that only Wendy and Brian were real; that perhaps the rest of their world was invented.

And there was something toy-like about them all: a soldier, a celebrity, a comedian, an architect and a hungry stranger. The characters are nuanced and complicated, all beautifully performed and yet all are somehow less than they could be, for they have found themselves in the house of No Possibilities. The house of Stick To Your Script. Each seems caught in a life defined by how others perceive them. Now, like dolls, they are coming apart at the seams.

The characters are working so hard to be the men and women they think they should be, the failures of their bodies is tragic and strangely inevitable: Wendy’s ‘inhospitable cervix’, the soldier’s weeping eye, Brian’s shuddering which no amount of running will still, the architect’s frothing mouth, Elise’s bleeding knee and Irene’s womb, so quick to produce daughters to hate her but never giving her a son and a reason to leave acting.

The soldier, played beautifully by Ben Clements, I found particularly fascinating. Like the other invited male guest, the architect, he is nameless and defined by his profession but his is built on physical strength. The other men treat him as a giant of unimpeachable masculinity and yet this body they idolise is betraying him. Whilst he still easily overpowers Dean, the fact that he has to hints that this will not be the case for long. Perhaps it is his one weeping eye that enables his escape. In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is King.

Emily Tomlins and Jackson Trickett, photo: Pia Johnson

Emily Tomlins and Jackson Trickett in DREAM HOME, photo: Pia Johnson

THE BATHROOM Keep the things most used closest to the door. You don’t want to walk through puddles to get to the hand basin. You’ll want a sensible amount of cupboard space. It is easy to let bathrooms get cluttered. Each person has so many things.

In Dream Home there are gendered spaces and conversations. Traditional concepts of masculinity and femininity are ever present but no one seems quite able to fill them. Elise, the comedian, pines for an image of female friendship that she has never experienced whilst Brian, beer in hand, rambles on about wars he will never fight.

BRIAN:            But we can’t all fight. You know, there’s other ways to contribute. Be a man… I run but it’s… Well I track the kilometres and I’m getting fit.

I feel I could write a room of this house for every character, for each opens their own door. Any argument or theory I form excludes one of them because this is the home of outsiders. But the bathroom is Irina’s space. Irina’s passivity is distressing to the viewer and the sex between her and Dean feels like a violation of everyone implicated, including the audience.

DEAN:               Gestures to Irina You know she’ll let you do anything to her. Any position. All you have to do after is tell her she’s beautiful. And you don’t even have to do that.

Irina views her passivity as strength. As the celebrity, she appears to move through the world with power and control and yet her methods of maintaining this illusion are entirely based on yielding her body and choices to other people. Her career began the day she lay inside a mermaid tail slick with her own blood without complaint for hours on end. She tells this story with pride, as if distilling pearls of wisdom. This is an attitude I’ve seen and heard many times. “The model was such a trooper. She twisted her ankle getting out of the car but we still shot for another five hours. She just put ice on it during touch ups.” I wish I were exaggerating. I am not. The glorification of passivity, compliance and willingness to work through pain is everywhere in creative industries. In Dream Home, Elise, the young comedian, calls this mentality what it is:

IRINA:                      You know who I am, right?

ELISE:                      Of course. You’re amazing.

IRINA:                      Thank you.

ELISE:                      The way you’ve been exactly what they want you to be.

Olivia Monticciolo as Elise performs this scene with absolute sincerity and naivety, which is what makes it so convincing. There is another version of this play, a simpler version performed by another actor paired with another director, which shows Elise as manipulating the older women with a deliberate viciousness. This innocence is part of the character’s trajectory. That she ends up with the house and child of other women is not a victory born of maliciousness, it is a tragedy, avoidable if only she had the mistrust of Wendy.

From the very start, Wendy knows all is not well. Emily Tomlins’ performance is beautiful and heartbreaking. As the only character truly aware of the dangers of their world, she becomes our grasping point; the person whose eyes you want to meet at that party before mouthing, “let’s get out of here”. I got the impression that, moments before the play begun, Wendy’s reflection had reached out of the mirror and slapped her. “What are we doing here, Wendy? This isn’t what we wanted.”

THE DECK A lot of people make their deck too narrow for what they want to use it for. They need to be deep and generous to be habitable. A deck is the connective tissue between the indoors and the outdoors. A transition into the rest of the world.

In the last season of 30 Rock, Jenna Marony and her partner, Paul, invent the fetish ‘Normaling’. They go shopping at Bed, Bath and Beyond and “shop for home necessities in front of everybody” without climaxing once. Slowly it dawns on them that perhaps this isn’t a fetish. Maybe it is just their lives now.

I think artists have both a deep fascination with and a horror of normality. Let’s be honest: most of us come from some version of blissed-out suburbia. Perhaps this is the reason that someone will always bring a Gregory Crewdson photo to an initial design meeting. His images confirm that we are right: suburbia is a fantasy built on thin, cracking ice. Dread or magical escape await below the surface.

We return to suburban bliss again and again because it is both what we know and what we fear. Are we ‘normaling’ or are we normal? Perhaps a bit of both. But here lies the purpose of art: to make alien the familiar and familiar the alien. As you pull out of the driveway and look back on your Dream Home, think of Viktor Shklovski:

“Habitualisation devours works, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war… and art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stoney. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known.”

Gregory Crewdson, from his TWILIGHT series

Gregory Crewdson, from his TWILIGHT series

Thank you to my architect father, David Kilpatrick, for his willingness to let his extensive knowledge and always thoughtful practice be turned into jaunty little tidbits of advice in a dramaturgical essay. One of his beautiful buildings, the Aldinga Beach Children’s Centre just received a national commendation. He creates beautiful spaces for children and I am very proud of him. Always.

Texting with Emilie Collyer this morning. Thank you to Emilie for sending me the script and for making something so complex and beautiful.

Texting with Emilie Collyer this morning. Thank you to Emilie for sending me the script and for making something so complex and beautiful.

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