Robert Reid on Scott Gooding’s genre take on toxic masculinity in Robert In Crisis
The first time I saw Scott Gooding was in a monodrama with a genre theme. Pure Escapism at the Storeroom in 2000 took comic book heroes as a metaphor for overcoming social anxiety and maturing into a fully-realised person. Robert in Crisis shares the same territory as Pure Escapism but now, nearly 20 years on, darkness has fallen.
Massive spoilers follow.
Well, I say spoilers, but really just one. Really. Big. Spoiler. Right in the middle of the show. Right when you think you know what it is you’re watching. The tricky thing is that if you’ve been paying attention, it’s exactly what you think you’re watching. The horror isn’t really in the genre, its in the reality lurking just underneath.
Robert isn’t his real name. None of these are the real names though: no names have been changed to protect the innocent, because there are no innocents in Robert’s world. Except, perhaps, some of the children.
We find Robert in a state of agitation. Not so agitated that he forgets that we are there with him, watching from the dark. He smiles broadly, blank-eyed, as if he might snap at the smallest provocation. Everything about him – the way he moves, the way he talks, the way he ingratiates himself, the way he grieves – is a veiled threat of physical violence.
Robert prowls the room, a flat or a lounge room full of removalist boxes of clothes and piles of books (I notice Douglas Copland’s Worst. Person. Ever. and one of the Angel tv series novelisations). The occupant of this place has just moved in or is just moving out. Nothing speaks to permanence. Nobody lives here.
Robert’s wife, Bella (he grins when he chooses this sobriquet for her, maybe because of the Twilight reference, he doesn’t say) has committed the most unforgivable betrayal: infidelity. When she tells him that she’s been unfaithful, Robert’s world falls apart into silence. The shutdown, as he describes it, is a white mist that descends as a terrible calm.
Robert talks as if we are his confidantes, therapists maybe, but not, I think, a jury. He shows no remorse and in fact is convinced he is the aggrieved party. He might admit to having become distant and unavailable in the relationship but he rapidly moves from numbness through self-destruction to self-pity and beyond to revenge.
He turns to his friend, Zhiang, to take him out, get him drunk and distract him from his incomprehension and pain. There is an alcohol-fuelled all-nighter that includes a blurrily remembered blow-job which we discover in the morning was more than just the fulfilment of unrequited homoeroticism – never far from the surface in their relationship in the first place – because here’s where the spoiler is…
Zhaing is a vampire, a blood-drinking, night-stalking, sunlight-avoiding vampire. In the confusion, Robert realises that the midnight blowjob was actually a Once Bitten style vampire bite on the femoral artery. The reality is brought home to him by the sight of Zhiang, caught in the sunlight from a door Robert throws open, reduced to a smoking pile of ex-best-friend ash.
Newly empowered, Robert makes a depressed and pathetic return home to Bella and the kids. Unable to cross the threshold to his former house without an invitation, he stands on the lintel and confesses his failures in the relationship, admits his weakness and cries for forgiveness. Bella relents and invites him in.
As he enters he looks over his shoulder at us: all pretense at remorse or humanity is already gone. It’s a chilling moment.
On a voyage of vampiric self-discovery, Robert tracks down Bella’s lover: her Pilates instructor, who Robert describes as a “greasy prick”. I’m not sure it’s meant to be a racist slur but it definitely has overtones. Certainly, Robert’s dismissiveness of Pilates instruction paints a picture of a man with very definite ideas of masculinity. You might imagine Robert doesn’t much like hipsters either.
In the Pilates instructor’s apartment we see the real monster unleashed. The vampire’s strength might course through Robert’s arms as he lifts his victim off the floor by the throat, but the monster spitting threats is the human Robert was long before his undeath.
He finds a mentor in a young woman who is not afraid to bleed to feed him but whose rare blood disease lowers its potency for vampires. Instead she leads him to the nursing home where his mother lies in palliative care. Together they syphon off a syringe of his mother’s blood and this revives him, as a hit does to a junkie.
Robert’s monstrosity is in how he sees the women in his life – the women he desires, leans on, uses and literally drains dry – in his self-centred focus on his own pain and confusion, around which he has arranged these women like kindling.
Determined to wreak havoc to slake his wounded ego, Robert breaks into his old house, waiting for Bella to return home. His plan is to take the new child from Bella, by feeding it milk tainted with his demon blood, turning it, too, into a vampire. As he tells us his plans, bleeding into the bottle while he talks, I wonder about his other two children. The baby may be the result of Bella’s affair – he refers to it as “the bastard” – but it’s not certain that this is the case. Robert’s ironclad self-pity can’t see beyond his own victimisation and so convinces himself that the worst case scenario must be real – it makes his cause so much more righteous. But he and Bella have two other children. Will he take them from her? Why not? Medea slaughters all the children Jason loves, why should Robert stop at one?
Unexplored metaphors hang in the air over the text. The vampire junkie thing, for instance, seems to be there as part of the conventional vampire idiom. Likewise, the emotional vampire/real vampire equivalency exists only because the two stories are placed side by side. The play itself is not concerned to draw these metaphors any further, and it does leave me wondering a little if their juxtaposition is exact. After all, vampires have no soul…
Before poisoning the baby’s milk Robert addresses us and tells us that, finally, after all that has been done to him, all that he has been through, he can finally let go and becomes the monster he has been made out to be.
But of course, he’s been a monster all along. The monster haunting Robert and destroying his life is toxic masculinity. He might have made these decisions at any time and, in truth, he made them long ago, when he chose to see the women in his life only in terms of his own needs.
The work doesn’t moralise. It merely presents the ugly thing for what it is and leaves us to judge. Everything about Gooding’s performance captures the enraged entitled male, permitting no sense of romanticisation. Robert’s inability to process, his shutting down and turning to destruction as an outlet for his confusion and hurt, his unwillingness to see his relationships as they are, his immaturity, his stunted adolescent masculinity, are all monstrosity realised.
And, unmasked, the monster is all too familiar.
Robert in Crisis, written and performed by Scott Gooding, directed by Hayley Butcher. Lighting by Bronwyn Pringle, set and costume design Emily Collett. At La Mama, Trades Hall Meeting Room (Closed)