Benjamin Law’s debut play Torch the Place gives mainstream Australian theatre the accessible kick up the ass it needs, says Cher Tan
The two big Ms—Minimalism and Migration—are resting in many minds lately. On the one hand, the popularity of decluttering guru Marie Kondo has reinvigorated conversations about how less is more. As a term, minimalism originally applied only to visual art (naturally influencing the look of gallery spaces, and then gradually other interiors—but that’s another story for another day) but now it applies to almost everything. In an era of late capitalist excess there is too much information, too much ownership, too many feelings.
On the other, while it’s not exactly a new phenomenon, a renewed interest in euphemisms such as “diversity”, “multiculturalism” and of course, globalisation, has made migration more thought about than ever. Beneath the conversation around migration lie the many reckonings that come with the search for home and belonging, and, in colonially unceded lands, the spectre of settlerhood.
‘For better or for worse, family is the bedrock of human existence, and Law manages to sketch out its complexities with grace and candour’
What better way to fuse these equally age-old and au courant concepts than in a play about trauma, mental illness, kinship and resilience? In writer and broadcaster Benjamin Law’s playwriting debut Torch The Place, these themes come together to illuminate the psychic weight that arise from migration, the unspoken secrets that are buried as a result, and the need to cull, cull, cull. Not necessarily culling the items of sentimentality that result from years of hoarding (although that’s a bonus), but the psychological and interpersonal tensions that get swept under the rug.
The play uses a tried-and-tested premise: it’s Mum’s (Diana Lin) 60th birthday and all three of her kids and one son-in-law, played by Fiona Choi, Michelle Lim Davidson, Charles Wu and Max Brown respectively, have reunited at home to spring a surprise – they’re going to clean up her house.
Their efforts to help her declutter are met with scorn, and other issues bubble to the surface: eldest sister Teresa’s unsuccessful attempts at IVF, and by association, the ability to bear a grandchild; middle sister Natalie’s successful career as a social media influencer, which has helped to lessen the load of Mum’s medical fees while grappling with cancer; and the fact that youngest brother Toby has yet to come out to Mum.
Known for the memoir and hit SBS sitcom The Family Law and his cheeky and candid advice column-turned-book Law School with real-life mum Jenny Phang, Law is skilful at outlining the subtleties that come with family in a way that is both tender and brutal. Humour gives way to pathos and back again.
This is evident in two noteworthy scenes. When Toby eventually finds an opportunity to come out to Mum, she ignores him for a few tense minutes to stress about her cut-up magazines, only to screech, “I know! Everyone is gay now!”; and when Mum slaps Natalie, causing possible irreversible damage to her money-making mien.
For better or for worse, family is the bedrock of human existence, and Law manages to sketch out its complexities with grace and candour. There are some instances where the jokes try too hard (Mum has kept her pubic hair in a shoebox; ceiling mould in the shape of a cock and balls), but the whole is saved by the stellar acting of the cast. There’s a The Simpsons-esque quality in how they endear themselves to the audience.
There are many ways a family-oriented show can border on cliché. It’s the common conceit’s double-bind: its universality can very well to be its downfall, with attempts to showcase familial bonds concluding in pap or pure stereotype. It’s easy to portray a heteronormative nuclear family unit where strife is smoothed over by simplistic happy endings, and breezy solutions are tacked on to underlying issues that scream IT’S FINE DON’T WORRY ABOUT IT. Often there will be some kind of hero (usually the father) who carries the weight of bad decisions with no real consequence.
Torch The Place doesn’t succumb to these tropes. For one, there is hardly any mention of a patriarch (he is implied to be a capital-B Bastard, and his ghost lingers on the set in the form of a blacked out face in a family photo). And Mum’s mental illness remains unresolved even if her cancer is in remission—the siblings can only hope to continue to be there for her until the end of her days.
The set, designed by the award-winning Isabel Hudson, lends an added panache. Within its maximalism (boxes upon boxes, a defective grand piano, magazines and many personal effects) lies a minimalism that gives new meaning to the phrase “organised chaos”. Inside the cosy Fairfax amphitheatre, it feels like the sort of meta joke that is somewhat parallel to the “Crazy Cat Lady” episode in The Simpsons.
And juxtaposed against the currently-relevant ‘90s nostalgia peppered throughout the play, the many layers that sit comfortably alongside the themes of migrant trauma make it especially meaningful. When the siblings stumble upon their old Mulan VHS tape and sing along in a quasi-musical scene to Reflection, there is a certain affectiveness that could very well descend into kitsch if carried out by the wrong hands. But in Torch The Place, it is #TBT made good.
‘The many layers that sit comfortably alongside the themes of migrant trauma make it especially meaningful’
Like many critics, I am deeply allergic to hype; sometimes I brace myself to tear to shreds what is generally likeable, if only to lend credence to the image of the discerning capital-C critic. But for all its fanfare (sessions are all but sold out), Torch The Place did not disappoint. The one-two-three punch that is Law, director Dean Bryant and associate director Margot Morales Tanjutco result in a clever combination of playful subversion and relevant contemporaneity
Aside from introducing some untranslated, you either get it or you don’t (I didn’t) smatterings of Cantonese to an English-dominated theatre landscape and its brisk sitcom pace, the play’s pop culture riffings and the personal-as-political come together to give the theatre form a well-needed vigour.
There are, of course, the occasional hiccups: the cast would do better to move their bodies a little bit more, and I didn’t think the quick turns to surrealism (for example, Toby’s flashback sequence) worked as particularly effective segues. And while Law’s TV and journalistic background may imbue Torch The Place with a palatable sheen, its very respectability may well give mainstream Australian theatre the accessible kick in the ass it needs.
Torch the Place by Benjamin Law, directed by Dean Bryant. Set design by Isabel Hudson, costume design by Kat Chan, Associate director Margot Morales Tanjutco, lighting by Amelia Lever-Davidson, composition and sounds design by Clemence Williams. Performed by Max Brown, Fiona Choi, Michelle Lim Davidson, Diana Lin and Charles Wu. Fairfax Studio, Are Centre Melbourne, Melbourne Theatre Company. Part of AsiaTOPA. Until March 23. Bookings
This production contains frequent coarse language, sexual references, mature themes, the use of herbal cigarettes, references to mental health issues and references to child loss. For detailed information about the production’s content click here.
Wheelchair Accessible, Hearing Assistance
Audio Described by Vision Australia: Saturday 29 February at 2pm, Tuesday 3 March at 6.30pm
Tactile Tour by Vision Australia: Commences at 1pm, prior to the 2pm performance on Saturday 29 February
Open Captioning via screen Saturday 7 March at 2pm