‘I couldn’t imagine why anyone would take this absurd set-up as anything but the occasion for some kind of vicious Orton-esque farce’: Alison Croggon on the MTC’s Home I’m Darling
This is the Tale of Two Acts. (It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…)
Dickens aside, Home I’m Darling at the Melbourne Theatre Company was a bewildering evening of theatre. Unreasoning optimism – which seems to be one of my perennial bad habits – meant I tumbled head-first into an egregious misreading of the play, only to be brutally disillusioned in the second half. Perhaps it was simply that I couldn’t believe that this production was merely what it appeared to be.
I guess the high-end production values don’t help. Home I’m Darling is intelligently and carefully directed by Sarah Goodes and boasts a top-flight design team in Jethro Woodward, Paul Jackson and Renée Mulder. It has the usual stellar MTC cast, showcasing a central performance from Nikki Shiels that is worthy of a much better text. But why was I intrigued by this anodyne fluff in the first place?
Judy (Shiels) is first glimpsed in a window, twirling on her toes as she prepares her husband Johnny’s (Toby Truslove) breakfast. She’s wearing a floral dress with a full-circle skirt, and he’s in braces: their home is all patterned wallpaper and retro post-war furniture. They look like they’re in a saccharine family sitcom from the 1950s, an illusion that’s shattered when Judy pulls out a Macbook.
Yes, it’s the present day, and Judy is cosplaying a 1950s #TradWife. This is an actual thing: a movement of women – exclusively white – who embrace ultra-conservative gender roles, “submitting to my husband like it’s 1959”. It’s all freshly baked cakes and slippers and cocktails when the man gets home. And it’s deeply connected to the far right. Why any woman would want to surrender her agency so completely in 2020 is mystifying, but all the same, there are women who do, and some who even – as Judy does – claim it to be a kind of feminism, a matter of “choice”.
The Good Wife was always a fantasy designed to keep women and children in good patriarchal order. I have a Good Housekeeping recipe book from the 1960s that belonged to my mother and which conjures a similar world to this play. It outlines the role of the Good Wife as a skilled professional in her own right, a partner to her high-earning executive husband. There are the gleaming professional kitchens and her polished, well-behaved children – as managed by Dr Spock – who are kept in professionally managed good health and well out of sight. At the end of the book is a photo of a glamorously-attired wife with a cocktail at her elbow, waiting for her husband to return from work.
Feminism is a many-splendoured thing, full of women who disagree with each other, as human beings do. There is a kind of feminism that, along with patriarchy, devalues the work that’s traditionally considered to be women’s business – the domestic sphere of child raising and home making – because it is only seen as an aspect of patriarchal oppression. I don’t buy into that either. The concept of the #TradWife appears to redress this imbalance by fetishising the idea of wifeliness, although, of course, in reality it perpetuates it as part of a larger system of oppression. But that’s another essay. At first I thought it might be a subtext of this play.
In Home I’m Darling, Judy isn’t quite the #TradWife beloved of the Alt Right, although she has all the trappings. She has left a high powered job in order to service her husband: the Fifties are her fantasy home, an escape from the responsibilities and anxieties of contemporary life. It’s presented as a reaction against an older kind of feminism: Judy’s mother Sylvia (Jane Turner in a collection of sensible beige clothes) raised her in a feminist commune and is horrified that her daughter is throwing away the freedoms that she fought for. Judy of course considers herself a feminist, in that she is choosing this poisonous nostalgia as a lifestyle. (Turner does her best with this role, which is basically a caricature of second wave feminism, familiar from several Joanna Murray-Smith plays).
Johnny, on the other hand, doesn’t quite fit her picture of a high-powered husband: he’s playing along with Judy’s desires, even though their hardcore retro lifestyle – complete with retro fridge, which isn’t working, and a clapped out retro car – is becoming a problem for his work as a real estate valuer. It’s notable that they don’t have, and don’t want to have, children.
Anyway…it swiftly becomes obvious that – surprise! – things are not as perfect as they seem. Johnny’s job doesn’t cover their expenses, and Judy has already run through her savings attempting to keep the façade going, and is now hiding demands for mortgage payments under the sink. Their fellow cosplaying friends Marcus (Peter Paltos) and Fran (Susie Youssef) aren’t nearly as committed to Fifties purity as Judy is, although Marcus – an unreconstructed sexist underneath his gestures towards equality – is deeply attracted to the idea of a submissive stay-at-home wife. Meanwhile Johnny’s boss Alex (Izabella Yena) sees Judy’s outdated role-playing as a liability rather than an asset, and it costs Johnny the promotion the couple needs to keep their lifestyle going.
My problem was, I guess, that I couldn’t imagine why anyone would take this absurd set-up as anything but the occasion for some kind of vicious Orton-esque farce, in which the idiocies of white middle class heterosexuality get the shit comprehensively kicked out of them in Act 2. There was enough satirical sparkle in the first act to encourage me in this belief but hey, mea culpa. I was reading it wrong from the beginning.
The temperature drops noticeably after interval, when the writing scrambles to twiddle all the knobs in the plot so they mean something. There’s a long speech from Sylvia on what the Fifties were really like (ration books, bomb sites, endless grimness). Marcus outs himself as a creep. Johnny and Judy reach a crisis. But somehow it doesn’t amount to anything – we’re inexorably heading towards the uncritical celebration of middle class heterosexuality that this play always was. In the end, Judy and Johnny compromise to save their marriage and we’re back at the beginning, in the same stiflingly twee reality that we started with.
I’m all for a bit of escapism: we’re living in a grim era. But it’s hard to escape the conviction that Home I’m Darling is primarily programmed – bizarrely, the STC is mounting a different production later this year – because it permits a cute design concept that feeds the contemporary nostalgia for a simpler time.
It seems symptomatic of everything that’s wrong with Brexit Britain that Home I’m Darling was an award-winning hit. As a friend said to me at interval, when I was still playing along, it’s profoundly vapid. And it’s hard to forget that there’s a heap of dark trash – homophobia, transphobia, racism, nostalgia for empire – that trails in the wake of this glossy, anaesthetic fantasy.
Home I’m Darling by Laura Wade, directed by Sarah Goodes. Set and costumes by Renée Mulder, lighting design by Paul Jackson, composition and sound design by Jethro Woodward, choreography by Steven Grace. Performed by Peter Paltos, Nikki Shiels, Toby Truslove, Jane Turner, Izabella Yena and Susie Youssef. Southbank Theatre, Melbourne Theatre Company, until February 29. Bookings
Wheelchair Accessible, Hearing Assistance
Audio Described by Vision Australia: Saturday 8 February at 2pm, Tuesday 11 February at 6.30pm
Tactile Tour by Vision Australia: Commences at 1pm, prior to the 2pm performance on Saturday 8 February
Open Captioning via screen: Saturday 15 February at 2pm