It’s not the same as being there but, says Robert Reid, Redline Productions’ live streamed Thom Pain (Based on Nothing) offers something else
There is something mesmerising about the combination of Will Eno’s jerky, self-interrupting text, Toby Schmitz’s tired, irritated performance and the act of watching it on my laptop at home that feels intensely personal and yet at the same time profoundly removed.
Eno’s text comes out of the Edinburgh Fringe in 2004, then from the Soho in London to an Off-Broadway run. I think it’s a problematic play: it has its charm, but it takes a lot of that charm from a time when people still found Christian Bale’s American Psycho sexy rather than a predatory monster.
Red Line productions are staging it online, using the Old Fitz stage in Sydney as a base from which to broadcast. Red Line produced Betty Blokk-Buster Reimagined in January – god, was it only January, it seems like a decade ago – which is another show I’d very much like to see live streamed.
Eno presents a portrait of a trying man. He’s trying in all senses of the word: trying to communicate, trying to explain, trying to feel and not feel too much, trying to spend too much time with. Thom Pain is an intellectual bore mansplaining his way through a damaged childhood and a broken relationship, the worst colleague to get stuck talking to drunk at the office Christmas party. The janky, self-correcting rhythm of Eno’s writing is the way to see through to the desperation of the man at the centre of this epic public breakdown. Schmitz navigates these breaks and corrections expertly and the frustration – at himself, at the world, at the unfairness of it all – is clear in each sigh and snort, eyeroll and brow-furrow. It’s an unspoken second language, a symphony in irritation.
The lighting is hard to judge because I can’t vouch for the quality of my screen, resolution or colour balance, but my experience was one of shifting from grey scale and noir black-and-white contrasts into sepia tones, then into full colour, and back again. For me it was a kind of hallucinatory experience, part of the mesmerising quality I mentioned earlier. The colour shifts and fades through different ages of broadcast, different tones of nostalgic pasts and the present.
Schmitz ranges around the empty Old Fitz, the cameras and lights visible around him from nine different angles (as the marketing team were at pains to point out, as if the number of camera angles were an attraction I’m not aware of…) The rumpled suit, the thick, dark rimmed glasses and the sightly dishevelled mop of hair all say “modern metropolitan masculinity”. He’s the guy you meet at the bar who’s had too much beer or too much coke, who used to smell like old cigarettes but now probably smells like strawberry vape smoke, and leans in too close to you to tell you why women can’t be Ghostbusters.
There’s something about knowing that, as we watch, Schmitz is actually in the venue doing this right now which makes the laptop screen seem almost porous. It feels more like a window than a mirror. The liveness is undeniably present in the experience, even though it’s not the same experience. It reminds me a little of the old live TV experience in the pre-cable days. The sense of also being present at the event, even though you’re at home. The sense of listening to the concert that’s being simulcast live from the MCG, the sense of watching The Midday Show as Normie Rowe punches Ron Casey broadcast live from the Bendigo Street studio. It’s not the same thing as being in the theatre with Schmitz and 200 other people, but it is an echo of that experience. An echo that could be enlarged upon.
Clever live performance makers and companies will be seizing upon this moment as an opportunity to do some amazing things. Fully immersive environs where cameras follow a live performance as it traverses them, live and digital special effects in an increasing interplay between the performance and the live editor. Before I stopped paying attention to the Chat section, there were close to 200 people tuned in to watch. Not a bad audience for a theatre the size of the Old Fitz, which can only fit 60. Knowing that there were so many of us watching, seeing the chatter beforehand, as if overhearing bits of conversation in the foyer, or the comments afterward, like cheering from the audience, are maybe only ghosts of actually being in the theatre. But they’re also a doorway to a new kind of audience experience.
Not everything works. The moments that are specifically designed for a theatre fall a touch flat. The “pardon my French” joke, for instance, or the calling up of an audience member remind us of the real thing, and in those moments I become very aware of the flatness of the screen. But in the more conspiratorial moments, when Schmitz leans into the camera, looks out at us and mutters aggrieved protestations at his treatment at the hands of the world, you almost feel him put his arm around you.
I’m not sure if it happens every night, but one of the mics was still on after the curtain call for opening night and it was actually sort of heart-warming to hear the “off camera” banter between Schmitz and the crew, wanting a beer after the show and joking about it being a quiet audience.
The curtain call is a little weird in the mostly quiet room. I can’t remember now if the crew applauded, but it feels like the magic created during the show collapses here into a full dress run. Not that I entirely disliked it, I must say – the fewer the people the happier the Rob – but even I miss the cathartic thunder of applause like a full stop at the end of a show. Schmitz and team certainly deserved it.
Thom Pain (Based on Nothing), by Will Eno. Directed by Andrew Henry and Toby Schmitz. Designed by Trent Suidgeest. Stage Managed by Genevieve Muratore. Performed by Toby Schmitz. Produced by Red Line Productions at The Old Fitz. Streaming online until July 3. Bookings