Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Theatre review: This Is Not A Love Story, Kathryn Koromilas

Performance part of Script-in-Hand at World Bar in Bayswater Road, Kings Cross, 28 September 2015. Script-in-Hand is produced by Actors Anonymous, a non-profit association.

Metafiction or the self-conscious narrative is hardly new. Writers have been incorporating their own personas into their texts for as long as vernacular writing has existed, the most famous probably being Dante's Commedia (1320) where the author Dante is a character in the work; amusingly perhaps he is escorted into the world after death by Virgil, the famous Classical poet and another authorial invention.

In what historians call the Modern age you have signs of metafiction appearing in William Shakespeare's Hamlet (1602), where the play-within-the-play is used to reveal to the criminals that their crime is known. Then of course you have the even-more-famous Don Quixote (1605) by the Spanish war veteran Cervantes, where the mediative tendency of popular fiction is a major plot device; the disordered don treats reality as though it were all part of a novel, with hilarious consequences. Later, in the era of lending libraries and knee breeches you get Tristram Shandy (1759) by the distinctly odd Anglican clergyman Laurence Sterne. Sterne's disordering of the printed text is quite extraordinary for the age in which it appears. He privileges the writerliness of the text in a way that would not be equaled until the 20th century.

This exegesis is all just to underline that self-conscious fiction should hold no major novelty for a contemporary audience watching a play of this kind, and so when you come across it you should merely ask why it is the method used to convey meaning in the case.

In the case of Koromilas' drama it is used in order to do a number of things, I propose, not the least among them the task of showing how mediated have become our emotions in the postmodern age. In this way, the play reminded me of another love story, Australian novelist Anthony Macris' Great Western Highway (2012), which involves the actions of two people in the late afternoon and evening of one weekday in inner-western Sydney. In a similar way, Koromilas' play offers us a single moment: when a woman tells a man that she is not happy with their relationship. In the play the man (simply 'Man', played by Michael Faustmann) is the husband of the woman ('Woman', played by Sally Williams). It is an existential crisis for the woman, this perception of failed love, because it might lead to separation, and even divorce. Traumatic events for any couple.

In Macris' book there is also an emotional crisis at the end that, you suppose, might lead to a workable solution. In Koromilas' play you get at the end the possibility of a workable solution (as well as a good solid laugh in the hilarious final line; this play is really fun).

I deliberately used the phrase "workable solution" to point here to the matter of teamwork. I wanted to take a phrase out of the lexicon of the program manager. In this vein, the stage is minimally furnished in a Beckettian way with just two chairs - one for Man and one Woman - and a desk that Author and Novelist buzz around like a couple of well-read blowflies.

The cast clockwise from top left: Hong, Duncan, St John, Faustmann, Williams.

The intellectual Author (Edric Hong) and the rather more sensual Novelist (Jay Duncan) he ropes into the task of creating meaning are accompanied in the play by the flamboyant Director (Eliza St John) who mediates their creation for the audience. (The presence of the audience is made even more palpable due to scripted interjections from the Director, who sits in the front row, in front of the stage where the drama is playing out.) Koromilas herself, as program-manager-ex-machina, made a short appearance at the front of proceedings on the night to introduce her creation to us.

With so many actors involved in the production of meaning you get an interrupted forward movement in the play that sort of resembles driving a car in heavy traffic. It is a familiar experience for people living in today's world. You constantly accelerate and break in alternation. The play consequently has a chaotic and unhinged feel that the actors played off effectively.

But I think that in general the presence of so many meta-fictional personae in the play points also to the way that work is often performed in contemporary society. Koromilas scripts (program-manages) the play in a way that brings to mind the way teams are deployed in corporations and other organisations in order to perform work. (Everyone has seen those phrases in employment ads, as for example "Must be a team player, and be able to work unsupervised".)

There is something so modern about this conception of the dramatic production in the play, quite resembling a world where disciplines are so fractured and divided that nobody actually makes anything wholly any more. All "work" is atomised to such a degree that we only each perform minute parts of the effort required to produce something complete. In a services economy like Australia's, furthermore, a "product" might just as well be a message or a piece of text (like a play, for example) that is released into the mediated public sphere in order to achieve a specific goal.

But Koromilas' play manages to do more than just convey ideas about the nature of work in modern society. There are interesting truths here about the nature of love. A traditional locus of meaning generation for fiction and popular culture more broadly, love is something like an essential human activity, and is common to all of us. Which is why it is necessary - you might venture - for Koromilas to make visible the various actors involved in the process of mediation of meaning that goes on all the time in society. What does "falling in love" mean in this context? And what about "falling out of love"? Koromilas takes us on a thrilling ride as she explores these popular tropes in this knowing drama.

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