The “late” Michael Gow, in his final commission as outgoing Artistic Director of Queensland Theatre Company invited the Black Lung Theatre and Whaling Firm to devise a new work. Into the Billie Brown studio the men of Black Lung have transported their offices, and with the help of a crew of young Brisbane artists, their new “interns”, they have proceeded to explore how theatre is made.
With mixed success over seventy minutes the play rollicks along exploring and exploiting theatrical conventions, disintegrating boundaries and repositioning itself and its genre, until it ultimately finds itself in the most traditional realm of theatre: naturalism.
I have a lot of respect for the theatre conventions they didn’t obey. There was no call to “please turn off you mobile phones”, and, most interestingly, there was no curtain call. After the show segued from the process of theatre into the naturalistic fall out between Black Lung and the interns, there was no need for the work to go back to theatrical convention. It sustained a naturalism about the final scenes because that is where it allowed the production to end, instead of asking for acceptance or recognition from the audience. The final notes became more about the audience than the cast.
Which was good, because at that point I didn’t feel much like applauding.
Perhaps what is highlighted in a piece of theatre about creating theatre – even if the fact is not explicitly mentioned – is the act of repetition. Theatre runs in seasons, the most rigid of productions attempting to run the same night after night. Even those shows with only one performance are a culmination of repetition through rehearsal. For I Feel Awful this only served to highlight the seeming exploitation of the young “interns”, and in particular the female actors, whose most defining traits as characters is the lust thrown on to them by the men.
Unlike some of the male interns, none of the female interns instigate their own actions: they don’t attempt to get the men of Black Lung to read their film scripts; they don’t get to freeze time. The most independent action any of the women take is to ask when they can return to presenting scenes from the texts of the late Gow. Scenes the men of Black Lung have taken out of context and played with gender casting to create every situation the intro to a lesbian porno. This joke once is one thing, if it was a series of heightened situations in some absurdity showing an interface between writer and director. The same joke repeated again and again celebrates an inherent misogyny in the production, and becomes gross.
The best that can be said for the misogyny is ultimately, it is the Black Lung men which come off the worst. They are judged harshly by their interns, they are not celebrated in the eyes of the audience. And yet this leads me to ask: what were they attempting to do with these characters they built around themselves? I have not seen their work before, and so with this being my only knowledge of the company I would be very hesitant to see their work again.
To explore misogyny is one thing. To explore it from the male perspective is another. To continually, night after night, performance after performance, place the young women of the cast in a never-ending position of being lusted over, with hardly any other qualities, is uncomfortable. To do this for no defined reason is completely questionable.
And so, when the stage was left empty, when the cast had left, the stage lights were up, and we weren’t asked to submit to ritualistic applause, I was pleased.
And this is made all the more disappointing because much of the show was strong. Particularly when it was exploring and exploiting the rules of theatre. Talking about theatrical styles, but never a lecture, weaving a narrative into this explanation. The opening interaction between Gareth and “Gareth” – a prerecorded character within the TV, timed to appear in spontaneous interaction, highlights the rehearsal process. Falling flats reveal props and a band.
Even as I write this I am making much more of a note of the exposition of these factors than the production ever did. Occasionally yelling out “That’s Naturalism!”, primarily the piece works as an ever heightening farce, destruction of boundaries taken place with glee, as debris piles about the stage the audience is taken along for the ride, but no stopping to reflect on what is happening.
In this, I Feel Awful holds no punches. It’s get with the production or get lost. The manipulation of theatre is all the more interesting because of where this is being performed. This isn’t in the back of a claimed venue in the Fringe. This is on at a state theatre company, the last commission by an outgoing Artistic Director. And that is exciting. The legitimacy that gives to an experimental work is exciting.
And while it breaks the rules of what theatre “should” be at a mainstage company, Black Lung still respects the audience and that dialogue an audience wants to receive. The audience which is going to see this work is probably regular theatre goers, local theatre goers, people who aren’t afraid to see work which takes risks.
I Feel Awful has strengths in its energy, its exciting ideas of the manipulation that theatre is, and the ideas of what it can be. And yet, for all that was strong, and for Black Lung’s respect of the bonds of theatre with an audience, I still cannot shake my dislike of the inherent misogyny brandished across the work. It is sad what dominated the production is the uncomfortableness of misogyny, buying into these traditional power structures, and the “joke” of repetitious leering. Because what theatrical culture are we in where repeated sexual harassment is played for laughs?
Queensland Theatre Company presents Black Lung Theatre and Whaling Firm’s I Feel Awful, written, directed and designed by Thomas M Wright. Design consultant Simone Romaniuk, lighting designer Gavin Ruben. The Black Lung Theatre and Whaling Firm: Liam Barton, Gareth Davies, Aaron Orzech, Vacadenjo Wharton-Thomas and Thomas M Wright; with Courtney Ammenhauser, Fin Gilfedder, Will Horan, Tiarnee Kim, Mary Neary, Essie O’Shaughnessy, Charlie Schache, Nathan Sibthorpe and Stephanie Tandy. At the Billie Brown Studio. Season closed.
Images by Stephen Henry