‘It’s almost like theatre’: Alison Croggon reviews Malthouse Theatre’s The Lockdown Monologues and Uninvited Guests’ Love Letters Straight from the Heart
I have all sorts of contradictory feels about theatre on screen. Mainly I’ve watched filmed performances in order to catch up on notable historical performances – Peter Brook’s 1967 production of Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade, say, or Trevor Nunn’s 1979 Macbeth at the Royal Shakespeare Company, with Ian McKellan in the title role and Bob Peck as Macduff – or productions that geography makes otherwise impossible.
With a few honourable exceptions, I’ve approached screened theatre as a version of an experience that needs to be imagined out of two dimensions in order to understand its full meaning. I watch the screen with its necessary poverties in mind: its lack of physical presence, the fact that it’s a record of something that happened in the past, rather than an experience that is occuring – is being made – in the immediate present, in front of my eyes.
Pandemic live-streamed theatre is, however, another thing. Already there are some conventions: we turn up (even if it’s in our living rooms or studies) and log in at a particular time, simultaneously with the actors, who perform live. We can’t pause or stop the performance, as we might with streamed television, and the performance doesn’t remain online to be viewed later. It’s…almost like theatre. But, as with Arthur Dent’s tea from the Nutrimatic Drink Dispenser in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, it’s almost, but not quite, entirely unlike it.
The Malthouse cautiously dips its toes in the water with The Lockdown Monologues, which take a leaf from Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads (which, not entirely coincidentally, have been remade for the 2020 pandemic, and will be released this week). Talking Heads was originally written for BBC television in 1991 and took advantage of the intimacy of the small screen to create sharp portrayals of a cast of “ordinary” characters. At a more modest level, the Malthouse commissioned three writers to create nine five-minute monologues looking at “ordinary” people under lockdown in Melbourne.
Although they’re performed live, the monologues are broadcast on Vimeo to an invisible audience at home. This brings them more into the purview of television than, say, Zoom or Skype, and makes them undemanding in the same way. It begins with a general introduction from the director, Brigid Balodis, with each piece then introduced by its writer. Everyone, including the audience, is sitting at home in front of their particular screen. The whole performance lasts about half an hour, an easy watch even for people tired of looking at screens.
I logged in for the second batch of three programs and found myself in a virtual foyer playing music, counting down to the performance. There was enough of an echo of theatre to make me realise how much I miss this particular ritual of gathering together in the dark, although I was no more (and no less) present as an audience member than I would be if it really were on television.
The first two monologues are delicately crafted, understated works in both writing and performance, which layer the minutiae of isolated life to sketch portrayals of profound loneliness. Jean Tong’s better, temporarily, performed by Margot Tanjutco, features a young woman who, having lost her job, spends more than six hours a day playing Animal Crossing, the real-time hit game of the pandemic.
In this virtual world she can own a big house, create luxury furniture and pay off an enormous mortgage in a few days. “We’ll never get that in real life,” she says wistfully. Although it’s a social game that even has its own black markets, she tells us she plays it mainly by herself. She notes the surprises, such as a spectacular virtual sunset, with the kind of revelatory wonder that Romantic writers devote to the sublime. But she knows that, like the performance we’re watching, it’s not the real thing. The final line slides in like a knife: “It’s like I was there.”
Jane Harrison’s Cat Lady Sans Cat stars Maude Davey, who plays a middle-aged, newly unemployed woman who has spent the pandemic organising her house, where she lives alone. The final task is sorting through her wardrobe, and we watch her Marie Kondoing her old clothes, while meditating on what it has been like aging alone in the pandemic, deprived of even casual relationship. “Before you know it,” she says, “you’re the woman who comes out of the hills once a year for a haircut”.
It emerges that beneath her loneliness is a new grief, the death of her husband five months previously. Lockdown means that she is forced to mourn alone, without even the comfort of being hugged by a friend. The wardrobe is the last task because it contains his clothes, and the jumper she wears every day belonged to him. “I still smell of Tony,” she says, “very faintly”.
Unlike the first two monologues, which simply take the conceit of the theatrical monologue and run with it, Tom Holloway’s The Drummer, performed by John Marc Desengano, is a dialogue with a silent interlocutor. He’s on Zoom, talking to a friend we never hear. This introduces an extra level of artifice that I found increasingly alienating – as audience members, we’re online with everyone else, but we know we’re not on Zoom. Our literal reality reminds us of that every time he addresses his silent friend.
The Drummer is histrionic in a way that the other two monologues avoid: our character is a high school teacher – an art teacher, we assume, because he is constantly fiddling with two paint brushes – speaking about the death of his boss, whom we learn is an inspiration to his students. We learn about this teacher’s final admission to hospital, where he is forced to choose a single visitor because of COVID-19 restrictions. He chooses his pregnant wife, but is unable to say goodbye to his young children. The monologue leads, via a rant about toxic masculinity, to the teacher’s realisation that he ought to be saying this to his students, rather than to his friend; he must take on the mantel of his former boss and become one of the “good ones”.
Out of curiosity, I looked up the COVID-19 restrictions for terminal patients, to find they aren’t nearly as cruel in Australia as Holloway describes; they can have, subject to health examinations, more than one visitor – in fact, they can have two at a time, and I couldn’t see anything that said they had always to be the same two people – and young children are permitted to see their dying parent. This artificial ramping up of dramatic stakes (in journalism we used to call it a “beat up”) seems of a part with its uncertainty of form, and no doubt contributed to the uncertainties and odd emotional falsities of Desengano’s performance.
Arts Centre Melbourne has been presenting a variety of online videos – recordings of shows, panels and so on. On Friday it was Love Letters Straight from Your Heart, an adaptation of a stage performance by the British company Univited Guests performed live on Zoom to 45 screens. This was a very smart engagement with live streaming, exploring its possibilities for co-creation and, importantly, emotional investment.
It “visited” Arts Centre Melbourne as part of a digital world tour organised by Fuel Theatre. Originally this show was staged like a dinner party, with audience members as guests seated around a U-shaped table hosted by performers Jess Hoffmann and Richard Dufty. The idea is that it’s co-written by the audience members, who are asked to submit a dedication – a song and a note – to someone they love, which will become part of the show. (Confession: I didn’t do this.)
Love Letters swaps the intimacy of the dinner table for the intimacy of Zoom conversations, which is surprisingly effective. I guess Skype has been part of the vernacular of internet communication for many years now, and it was interesting how the form hooked into that sense of familiar immediacy.
Like the original show, it’s employing intimacy in a room full of strangers. Unlike the original show, the virtual “room” includes the audience members’ homes. I sauntered down the hallway after dinner to watch it, and (foolishly, I should have expected it) was taken aback that we were all visible to each other. I don’t especially like being visible online, especially if I have to see myself – I think I lasted about half an hour with the video on – but I was quite happy to stare into other people’s living rooms.
Near the beginning was a weird moment in which we were asked to stare into the eyes of another person while a song was played, which I found unsettling, because that person was most probably staring into someone else’s eyes altogether and maybe nobody was looking into mine. But after that, I found myself enjoying the conceit. Although it lasted almost 90 minutes, I didn’t find myself bored or distracted.
The dedications were cumulatively moving, snapshots of all the different shapes of desire and love, their possibilities and joys and betrayals and sadness. The dedicatees varied from long-term spouses to unnamed lovers, from a mother estranged by divorce to an aunt who had died after a particularly difficult life. The songs were just as various, from Nick Cave’s Into My Arms to an unlikely duet between John Denver and Placido Domingo, Perhaps Love.
These glimpses were punctuated by toasts, where we dutifully unmuted ourselves and changed our view to gallery mode, and a couple of personal dedications by the hosts. It felt loose and permeable, but never directionless. At the end, as our hosts danced through their morning houses on the other side of the world, sharing with us their kitchens and children, the views outside their windows, it did feel as if we had all participated in something together, that we had all been there.
Perhaps if I had had time to think of my own dedication, I might have felt that participation more keenly. But all the same, I walked back down the hallway to my own kitchen, thinking of all the people I love. And that felt real.
Love Letters Straight from Your Heart, directed by Paul Clarke and devised by performers Jess Hoffmann and Richard Dufty. Uninvited Guests, Fuel Theatre and Arts Centre Melbourne, June 19. Digital world tour dates.
The Lockdown Monologues, written by Jean Tong, Jane Harrison and Tom Holloway, directed by Bridget Balodis, dramaturgy by Mark Pritchard. Malthouse Theatre and Malcolm Robertson Foundation. Free with registration at the website. Final performance: July 3.