Awkward, pained, anxious and agitated: things don’t go well for Louis. Robert Reid on 80 Minutes No Interval at Theatre Works
There’s something immediately old fashioned about 80 Minutes No Interval, Hot Mess’s new production at Theatre Works. Written and directed by Travis Cotton, it tells the story of Louis, a failing novelist and theatre reviewer who, through his own crapulence, careens from disaster to disaster and loses everything.
The performances are all confident and engaging in that way actors can be: comfortable, assured and emotive. It’s a proper play with characters and a setting (if no set) and a realism that is at the same time hyper-aware of itself and comfortable with the suspension of disbelief it asks for. It winks and nods to the audience from the start, subtly and not so subtly. It hides its cleverness in such plain sight so cleverly, I’m not a hundred per cent convinced it’s all that clever.
In the obvious way, it’s theatre about theatre or, at least, art about an artist, a genre I struggle to find interesting. It trades introspection for irony, letting us know that it knows we know with a range of clever resurrections of old fashioned staging conventions: the aside, the physical theatre montage; the cheapish looking neutral half masks; the self-referentiality. The circular dialogue that spins uncertainly out into circular narrative. There is quippy dialogue and repartee between Louis and a waiter at the restaurant where Louis struggles to propose to his girlfriend. There is comic frustration boiling under the scene where Louis is kicked out of home by his long-suffering parents.
The play floats a little awkwardly in the big space of Theatre Works, sitcom naturalism suspended in the big black empty. The text seems to cry out for a full set, complete and detailed in the way that only main stage companies can afford these days. The dusty, scuffed black floor feels obtrusive. The crumpled, unironed black sheets whisper insistently of low budgets and low expectations. A few actors, a few tables draped with black cloth and some simple chairs. Tulips on the table signify a restaurant. Shifts in lighting shift location and mental states. That said, it’s a testament to the ideas in the text and (I think especially) the strength of the performances, that after a while I don’t notice the slightly clumsy staging.
Something is happening, though. Louis’s mother is played by Louis’s girlfriend. Doubling actors is hardly a new convention, but there’s something about it in this play that calls my attention to the theatrey-ness of it all. Am I seeing in-jokes where there aren’t any? There seem to be too many to be anything less than deliberate. All the characters revolve around Louis, who is consistently awkward, pained, anxious and agitated all at once. Ambitious and craven, like any weekend writer setting up their lap top on a prominent table at a Starbucks and loudly typing their masterwork ready for self-publishing.
Louis’ world falls rapidly apart around him from scene to scene. It reminds me of Toby Schmitz’s Lucky, in which the central character blunders from encounter to disastrous encounter. Is it a coincidence that the main character in Louis’ book is called Schmitty? Louis and his publisher repeat the name so often it’s hard to believe the joke is only about the publisher’s mispronunciation. It seems to go on for ever. Am I the only one in the audience who might make that connection?
This is what I mean. Am I staring too deep into the abyss here?
It’s filled with easter egg-sized details that might be intensely deep cuts at independent theatre in Australia in the last few years. In the reconciliation scene with Louis’ girlfriend, she tells him all the things she hates about the theatre he drags her to in his capacity as professional critic. She lists clichés of postdramatic and expressionistic theatre that were common on the main stages in Australia roughly 10 years ago.
A desire for simplicity seems to drive her distaste for theatre, Louis’ work and Louis himself. Louis overthinks everything (even the sauce options at the restaurant). She wants a good simple story. No one painted blue. Nothing falling from the ceiling. No one naked on stage. No third act that takes place entirely in darkness. All of which are things I’ve seen in the Melbourne stage none-too-recently.
This is where the eponymic line is to be found. Pretentious theatre, according to Louis’s girlfriend, is 80 minutes long with no interval. Ha ha. The joke on the joke is that many (if not all) of these clichés find their way into the staging of 80 Minutes No Interval itself, like the nudity, or a rose petal drop from the ceiling, a scene played entirely in darkness and, of course, its run time of 80 minutes no interval.
But this irony feels ungrounded. I find myself sounding like the red box that replaces Louis as the theatre critic at his paper. The self-aware observations and appropriations of gimmicky theatre don’t feel like they come together to reveal a truth so much as they reflect a cynicism about formal experimentation in performance. The play follows much the same line as the long-standing Australian tradition of the New Chum play of the 1800s: a hapless outsider blunders from encounter to encounter, failing to achieve their goals, failing to learn from their failures and either going back where they came from or dying.
It’s hard to know what to make of 80 minutes No Interval. It seems aware of its ironies, it seems hip to the local fashions for theatre and literature, and at the same time it’s cynical about progress (or at least change) in these areas. It reaffirms as quickly as it denies the easy hegemonies of colonial thinking. It’s as sneeringly dismissive of theatricalisation as it is quick to employ it. All these ambivalence might be fine if there was a logical consistency to its internal moralities. Louis proceeds from humiliation to humiliation, from the loss of his fiancé and being kicked out of home in his 30s, to being stripped naked and given 20 years in prison for the mostly accidental murder of his publisher.
Like a polite grand guignol on modern middle class themes, the gruesome outcome is inevitable. But what is Louis’s hamartia that leads to this down fall? His refusal to make decisions, like Michael Douglas in Wonder Boys? His inability to see himself for the little thing he is? The pride that keeps him from replacing Kurt Cobain with a Kylie concert at the urgings of the best publisher in town?
The satires of the literary and performing arts are both biting and toothless. Hearing the same unshakable clichés of the culture industries rehearsed once more – that theatre critics are failed novelists and those who can’t, teach – palls quickly, no matter how in on the joke we might be.
What comes of all this? Louis leaves us at the feet of his dead daughter, wondering what progress there has been. It takes 20 years in prison and the odd homophobic joke about prison sex for Louis to learn his lesson and stop ruining everything with his anxieties, but even this is not enough. With his fate once more in his own hands, he resumes, Sisyphus-like, to muddle through his days, leaving chaos and destruction in his wake.
I mean, its not a terrible metaphor for the progress of creativity in the marketplace of the patriarchy, but I’m not totally convinced that’s what it was going for.
80 Minutes No Interval, written and directed by Travis Cotton, set and costume design Brynna Lowen and Sarah Hall, sound design by Hamish Michael, lighting Design by John Collopy, produced by Annie Bourke. Performed by Travis Cotton, Robin Goldsworthy, Martelle Hammer, Tamzen Hayes and Tom O’Sullivan. Hot Mess Productions and Theatre Works. Until December 2. Bookings
There is a complete lockout once the show has commenced.