by Zoey Dawson
16 Aug - 8 Sep 2018
Direction: Janice Muller
Set & Costume Design: Romanie Harper
Lighting Design: Amelia Lever-Davidson
Sound Design & Composition: James Paul
Stage Manager: Josh Sherrin
Assistant Stage Manager: Cointha Walkeden
Besen Placements: James Lew/Jessica Moody
Dramaturg: Declan Greene
Review Irene Bell
Zoey Dawson’s latest, Australian Realness, gets right to the heart of Australian middle-class drama and rips it to shreds. Before the performance even begins, Australian Realness welcomes you into such a typical Australian home that as you wait for the play to begin, you can’t help playing 'Spot The Thing We Used To Have At Our House'. The level of detail in Romanie Harper’s set design makes it wonderfully nostalgic and instantly evocative of the realist family dramas Australia loves. Soon the characters come out and they are all there; the kooky dad who used to be cool in the '70s, he swears; the slightly uptight mum who just wants to have a nice celebration; the feminist daughter who doesn’t hear the privilege seeping from everything she says; the son who is trying so damn hard to make it in business. All the clichés we know and love/hate are here, just in time for Christmas. However, soon the bogans – who have been living in the shed – 5 come to join in the holiday fun and the farce of Australian middle-class culture begins to unravel at such a radical speed you wonder how shoddy it must have been to begin with. Dawson’s text is hilariously intelligent. Its searing critique of class divide is nuanced and fair to the characters. She powerfully exposes the grey areas of modern life and the hypocrisies of the Australian bourgeois. Living in Melbourne and seeing this show is damn good comedy, with every reference to inner-north institutions spot on. However, Dawson doesn’t leave us in regular family drama territory, the play nosedives into complete absurdity, with a revolution, actors playing multiple characters, and an art installation so pretentious it must really be happening somewhere. We are forced to examine the way we live and the entertainment we consume, while being endlessly enthralled by the text and the acting. The five main cast members, Linda Cropper as the mothers, Greg Stone as the fathers, André de Vanny as the sons, Emily Goddard as the sole daughter, and Chanella Macri as the partner, are all as tremendous as each other. Having each actor play a range of characters with varying levels of absurdity exhibits their talent and utter dedication to the show. Australian Realness is strong enough theatre to be able to call out its middle-class audience, while still making them laugh. It inspires you to take more care with your life and the opinions you hold and hypnotises you as it breaks apart the notion of entertainment and drama itself. It’s all a farce; life is a farce, theatre is a farce – yet, it’s the realest thing there is
★★★★★ ‘Australian Realness, gets right to the heart of Australian middle-class drama and rips it to shreds.’ – The Music
‘An incredibly thoughtful and challenging work.’ – Arts Hub
‘...a theatrical palate-cleanser, a David Lynch-style sorbet – oh so unsettling, but oh so refreshing. ’ – Arts Review
Photos: Pia Johnson
Savage satire cuts class to the bone
By Cameron Woodhead
August 22, 2019 T
Zoey Dawson’s Australian Realness is billed as a comedy, though don’t expect anything too relaxed and comfortable. The play starts off tickling your funny bone only to bash it against every mirror in the funhouse of our country’s delusive attitude to class. Even mentioning the “C” word these days is fraught. This century, the rhetoric around it has become hopelessly mangled and distorted in the political arena, and the results speak for themselves. As Australia’s wealth has grown, and social inequality with it, class has become a dirty word.
Dawson takes a familiar comic trope – pitting the bourgeois family against the bogan – and transforms it into a savage, surreal satire. Her play begins in an upper-middle-class home in Fitzroy and lulls you into a false sense of security with a premise worthy of David Williamson. Advertisement Adult children return to the nest for Christmas to find their boho-bourgeois parents keeping up appearances. But behind the veneer of casual snobbery, 8 political correctness and pretentious arts-wank lurks financial disaster – not to mention unexplained bogans in the backyard. Williamson said once that his characters always seemed to remind audiences of someone they knew, but never themselves. He didn’t say that’s exactly why many of his plays were so popular: they invited middle-class spectators to recognise, but not challenge, their foibles and prejudices. If the surface comedy of manners provokes a frisson of recognition here, it's soon brutally dismantled as the piece dissolves into a black comic nightmare. Australian Realness becomes less Williamson and more like Luis Bunuel's film The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie: it's a phantasmagoria in which the overwhelming entitlement and hypocrisy of the middle class is exposed. The dream play might seed itself with canned laughter at uncouth caricature, but surrealism blossoms into a black dahlia of cruel imaginings where satirical inversions abound. Investment bankers burgle family heirlooms to pay for coke habits, while petty crims strike it rich on the stock market. As the bogan takeover proceeds, a paranoid collective fantasy of class warfare comes to life.
The most astringent swipe is reserved for artists. An act of appalling exploitation bleeds into a sequence where a loser in the very real class war, excluded from the theatre, starts to mumble her story, before we return to a barren stage and a family left going through the motions. The production has plenty of disorienting design shocks and the performers – Greg Stone, Linda Cropper, Andre de Vanny, Emily Goddard, and Chanella Macri – achieve a dark kaleidoscope of comedic styles, though Janice Muller’s direction doesn’t quite unify them. Given the bleak material, perhaps the text and performance style flatten too much later on to sustain ironic distance on the fear and loathing the play critiques. So, is Australian Realness a comedy? In the end, this cutting and provocative piece of contemporary theatre will leave you struggling with that very question.
In 2011, someone* told me to see a play in a terrace in Fitzroy during the Melbourne Fringe and I was blown away at the original voices and capture of what it was like to be 20ish woman. One of the creators of I know there's a lot of noise outside but you have to close your eyes was Zoey Dawson. I think I've seen all of her significant plays since then; some (like Conviction and The Unspoken Word is Joe) have blown me away at their original voice and capture of what it's like to a theatre person in Melbourne. Australian Realness is Dawson's first mainstage show at Malthouse. It begins as the kind of letslaugh-very-gently-at-our-middle-class-selves-without-being-mean naturalistic comedy. It's set in 1997 and the blue-checked couch, Country Road dress, box of Moet, artichokes and hand-made wind chimes (design by Romanie Harper) are so recognisable that many of the audience will be pricing it in their heads and don't need the references to know it's in North Fitzroy. Goodness, it's so silly-us-inthe-90s-with-our-lovely-houses-reading-that-Tim-Winton-book-about-the-disabled-boy that it could be in that bigger theatre down the road. But it's not that kind of play. The family are mum, Linda Cropper; dad, Greg Stone; pregnant daughter, Emily Goddard; coke-head investor son, Andre De Vanny; and daughter's girlfriend from Coburg who is about to lose her job at the wharfs, Chanella Marci. The constant sound (James Paul sound design) of building new apartments next door threatens to ruin family Christmas, but there are secrets that are more dangerous. It's really not this kind of play. One secret is that the family money is running out, because no one is buying books or seeing puppet shows any more, and that the shed has been leased to a family of people from the suburbs; doubled by three of the cast. This fag-smoking mum wears a glitter reindeer t-shirt from K-Mart and this dad bonds with wharfy girlfriend because they are the only people who get that the blissful "I can hear the 19 cockies at Merri Creek" silence from the building work stopping next door means that people have lost their jobs. Bogans V what-Yuppies-grew-into. Australian cities and class. Did people living in huge-houses-neargood-schools know what was happening at the Melbourne wharfs in the late 90s and early 2000s? When the classes clash, the so-familiar comedy twists into an Aussie sitcom complete with laugh track, talking to the audience and characters that are easy to laugh at because they are not us. And "they" don't go to the theatre, so they won't see it. It's easier to laugh than admit to fear. And it's not that play either. It's a what-if terrified imagining that the working class revolution happened. Or a dystopic time-shifting fantasy. Or a blood-soaked urban gothic horror dream. Or a jolt into now with a consensual live-art exhibition and cereal-milk pannacotta Masterchef jokes. Last week, I was unsure about another play by a young writer on a mainstage because tried to be too many things at one. This is similar, but is more successful because it changes tones tightly and every genre within the genre would be great by itself. Director Janice Muller ensures that the absurdly outrageous shifts in tone and story are surprising but feel so right in the theatre. The walls can come down in the theatre; we never have to imagine that we are really there. And Goddard remains the same character who was asleep on the couch at the beginning, ensuring there's always someone to consistently care about. Australian Realness is far more than a safe poke at those who go to the theatre and make fun of bogans. It's a far sharper poke and no one knows the safe word to make it stop.
ARTS HUB review
AINSLEY KERR MONDAY 26 AUGUST, 2019
For a play set before the collapse of Ansett, Australian Realness feels remarkably prescient, teeming with contemporary Australian preoccupations: gentrification, the politics of representation, and political correctness. All become fodder for playwright Zoey Dawson’s insightful satire. The premise is simple enough: the grown children of a middle-class couple in Melbourne’s inner suburbs return to their family home for Christmas only to discover, sometimes frustratingly slowly, that Mum and Dad are a bit strapped for cash – they’ve just had to sell the Audi. To make matters worse, they’ve rented their back shed out to a family of ‘bogans’ who threaten to disrupt the bourgeois festivities. It’s a satire but also a celebration of contemporary Australia. The play lurches forward, moving slowly at first before flying into a surreal nightmare in which petty middle-class concerns are replaced with genuine class war, violent 29 and catastrophic. While the play initially seems satisfied to merely parrot familiar characters and regurgitate tired stereotypes, two-thirds of the way through, it veers wildly into a much more interesting and dynamic exploration of the powers that sustain inequality, and the bourgeois liberalism that both criticises but also benefits enormously from the maintenance of the status quo. The design facilitates the transformation from realism – albeit a Hey Dad style of realism – to a nightmarish post-apocalyptic dream world with unbelievable dexterity. The entire cast are compelling, achieving an impressive dynamism that looks effortless. Especially impressive is Emily Goddard who takes the audience with her on her journey from self-absorbed, politically correct, condescending lesbian artist to rabid, vicious and bewildered when her comfortable lifestyle is threatened, betraying both her liberal hypocrisy and bourgeois entitlement. With socialism gaining a foothold in youth politics and even splashed across the pages of Teen Vogue, it is hard not to read this as a bleak condemnation of naive demands for wealth redistribution. Ultimately it is the artist who comes up for the harshest scrutiny, with a particularly incisive scene of poverty porn as art which sees the artworks finally fight back. Despite everything through, even once the artifice is torn down, even once we can finally see through the lies that protect us, we ultimately revert to pretending it’s all real anyway. Maybe the ultimate hypocrisy of the middle class is the idea that identifying your flaws is the same as correcting them. An incredibly thoughtful and challenging work: highly recommended.