Out of Touch
JEREMY THOMPSON reviews HE’S SEEING OTHER PEOPLE NOW.
The play runs at Metro Arts’ Sue Benner Theatre until Jul 21. Ph: 3002 7100 / www.metroarts.com.au
Norman Doyle (and one of his five personas) walks onto stage and takes a seat. A cheerful voiceover (Lucas Stibbard) reminds the audience to switch off mobile phones to ensure the viewing pleasure of other cinemagoers. Suddenly we locate both him and ourselves; he is the audience watching us as a film. The uncanny moment hovers. Then, Katy Curtain sits behind him. He propositions her, awkward John to disinterested prostitute. We forget we were the watched and become the watchers again.
He’s Seeing Other People Now — Anna McGahan’s playwrighting debut, directed by Melanie Wild — draws the audience into five (connected but distinct) stories, each time about an older man, Archie, and young woman, Fay. The setting is a near-future, dystopian Brisbane, where Big Brother is indeed watching.
Via the dystopian genre, McGahan both points away from and to our contemporary society. Her target is clear. She takes our increasingly fragmented society to an exaggerated (albeit logical) conclusion: a place where physical touch is turned grotesque. By removing touch, she highlights how fragile communication can be between two people.
A father struggles to understand his daughter, hampered by his inability to touch her. In the Q&A of a sexually subversive film, a man threatens and shames the actress for engaging in physical intimacy on screen. The value of these stories is in how familiar they seem, set in their futuristic Brisbane and yet echoing contemporary events and concerns.
The play alternates between drawing the audience into these stories and jolting them out again. As is obvious from its beginning, He’s Seeing Other People Now is determinedly about the act of theatre and art. At every turn it winks and points to its own mask. A bell sounds every time the story switches to another Archie and Fay, which evokes ironically the bell signalling the end of a theatrical intermission. The play’s denouement (here I provide a spoiler warning) involves a masterfully directed meta-twist. Indeed, even the presence of a subversive film within the play is significant; it tells us to think about the role of art.
This meta-theatre is not gratuitous. By drawing attention to theatre in this future devoid of intimacy, it questions whether theatre (and, by extension, art) can communicate to others and have others connect because of it. The play’s verdict remains ambivalent; we are left with the intrusion of the outside world into the theatrical space.
Doyle shines as five different Archies. He slips between the characters as completely as if were responding to the bell as a Pavlovian mechanism. Where Doyle differentiates his characters beautifully, Curtain tends to fuse them together — but her engaging performance makes for an impressive debut at Metro Arts.
The set design is sparse and effective. Jessica Ross presents us with a few square seats and a chain-linked fence, fusing together the cinema with the street upon which the revolution takes place. Optikal Bloc, the projection designers, create the finest visual backdrop that I have ever seen in a play, culminating in sleek scene where the projection moves onto a train with all the realism of a 3D simulation. The continued presence of GO Cards concretes the setting as a truly dystopic Brisbane future.
My one criticism of this play is that it tries to do too much. It covers a cornucopia of themes, from slut-shaming, to the revolutionary possibility of art, to father-daughter relationships — it even alludes to apocalypse with the mysterious event of birds dying en-masse. The play is overloaded; because of this, some aspects of the show seem shallow. For example, the dystopian, revolutionary background, against which the play is set, does nothing new or interesting with the genre. The characters recycle phrases about the Man and fighting for authenticity. Further, the meta-theatre, while thematically relevant and useful, doesn’t in and of itself manage to say anything new or exciting about the role of art (not surprising, given time restraints — it’s a one hour play).
He’s Seeing Other People Now feels like a glimpse into the notebook of a talented and enthusiastic playwright. It contains so many fantastic elements; all they require is focus.
JEREMY THOMPSON took his first tentative steps as poet and writer at SpeedPoets. His work has since been published Small Packages, Rave Magazine, Voiceworks, and Notes From The Gean.