A Response: Triumph | The New Working Group at fortyfivedownstairs

February 24, 2016 § Leave a comment

Part one.

When the lights come up—harsh florescent ones—the actors begin to set up some stools in a circle. They work in silence, arranging. Then there is a cry; a young girl has cut, or otherwise injured, her finger on the underside of a stool. A man—one who seems to be in charge—comes to her aide and holds her hand. He places pressure on it. He counts. There are others—two women, an older man—they go about their business, making tea over beside the snacks table and what have you. The counting continues: “sixty-one, sixty-two, sixty-three…” He stops and she walks away. He checks the underside of the stool, nothing. An accident? A miracle? Something else…?

Triumph, by Louris van de Geer, and produced by the New Working Group, is “inspired by real stories of fake victims”. This tag line sets the audience up immediately to expect deception and lies, fused with an undercurrent of truth — unless of course an audience member missed the advertising, which is entirely possible; although, considering the company included the line in their material we can assume they wanted people to know. And perhaps the notion of truth is superfluous (erroneous?) to level at a piece of theatre.

We’re introduced to these real story and fake victims via a support group: the chairs, snacks and councillor are here to help people discuss their trauma. They come together to speak. But we’re here watching, listening, silent. Are we going to hear their confessions, their secrets, and or shames? One can only hope so. We are voyeurs after all. One woman gets up and as she opens her mouth the stage darkens and two screens, suspended over the action, plays footage of the twin towers collapsing, September 11. She sits down. The rest of the circle is moved, affected, sharing in her grief. Only, we can’t help thinking, is she telling the truth?

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Copyright The New Working Group and Pier Carthew

A relationship between the woman and another, who is unable to speak about the event, forms and they develop a friendship, of sorts: a cocoon of comfort in each other’s company because no one else can understand their ordeal — not friends or family, nor fiancées and husbands, only those who were there and had the experience. The woman who is able to speak continues to do so, empowered by her duty to speak for those who cannot. She goes on talk shows; she is even given a plush bear by a complete stranger. She puts words together to describe the unimaginable in a way that others seem incapable of doing. She lets the public share in the story. The second woman is still unable to discuss the events of that day; meanwhile, the first is seen pouring water from a kettle (boiling) across her leg to create credible burns. On the screens she talks freely and easily about how important what she is doing is. We see the truth.

Her story begins to unravel. She lost her fiancée in the attack — or was it her husband? She comes undone as the minutia trips her up. She leaves the group. The other woman feels…duped, nonplussed — confused but also unsurprised. That’s how we feel too. It was never really a secret that she was making it all up, was it? That’s the premise of the show…it says so. Should the second woman have known better? Should she have suspected more? Should we? Despite the betrayal, the two women feel an affinity for each other and leave messages on each other’s phones — ‘I’m still thinking about you’.

 

Part two.

A hospital bed: a young girl vomits. A woman—her mother—helps her. The screens above display various mundane television clips as the scenes flick from one to another. The mother is on the telephone receiving condolences. The young girl is in pain. A doctor or nurse is checking up on them. And so on. The mother informs the daughter of how many prayers they’re getting: “but we don’t know anyone religious,” the daughter says, “it’s an expression (figure of speech?)” comes the reply. The mother gives her some medication. This is the warning sign; we see it, we know. Mothers in hospitals do not secretly give their children medication. This section must be about that. And it is.

In particularly gruelling back-to-back scenes, the mother rubs lotion on the child’s back and in the next one the doctor is seen peeling flesh from the same spot. The child winces in pain. Strip by strip, the skin is removed. It’s painful to watch. Time passes and the child’s health fluctuates. But she never recovers and no one knows exactly what is wrong with her; when she is almost better, the mother gives her something or does something to her and she gets worse again.

At one stage a doctor talks to the mother, explaining that she (the mother) will be loved even when/if her daughter gets better. The mother decides that it’s time to go; this hospital is no good, she declares. She gathers her daughter and their belongings—including the plush bear from the first scene—and drags her daughter out of the hospital. The daughter protests. She says she doesn’t need her mother. Affronted, the mother leaves. The daughter doubles over in pain, calling for her. The mother comes back and repeats her words, “I thought you didn’t need me?” The response, “I do”. The mother demands, “Say it again.” Finally, “I need you”. The mother goes back to caring for her daughter, taking her to another hospital: the nurses buy the daughter the biggest balloon in the gift shop. Another round of tests begin, and no one is closer to knowing what is truly wrong.

There is a condition called Munchausen syndrome by proxy, which is when a primary caregiver exaggerates the state of, or actively hurts (either mentally or physically) those in their care in order to receive sympathy — that is to say, the caregiver receives sympathy. While this section seems to deal with something similar, it focuses on and highlights the daughter’s dependency on the mother. Although the mother seems to relish the ‘prayers’ and the ‘biggest balloon’ these are sidelined by her desire to be needed by the daughter: as illustrated in the scene with the doctor, in which he explains that the mother can still be needed if her daughter is well, and the scene in which the mother gets the daughter to vocalise that need. This part ends with the daughter in pain and the abuse continuing.

Similar to the first part of the play, there was little surprise, or even little that was not known, apart from motives — why was this mother doing this in part two? Why was the woman lying in part one? Moreover, why didn’t the doctors do more and how does one seek retribution for being lied to? Apart from this, the deception seemed easy and with little consequence; the mother was willing to harm the daughter but it didn’t feel like she was conflicted about it, so it’s difficult for the audience to transcend or challenge the feeling that what she’s doing ‘is wrong’, which I don’t think is in any doubt.

Similarly, we know, intuitively (though social conditioning, rather) that we should not lie, particularly about being in a tragedy when you weren’t, but no one seemed too fussed by this, and the woman lying didn’t suffer too much either. Of course, there is no need for the ‘stakes to be raised’ or anything like that; or for there to be retribution; or for there to be the sentiment that they ‘get away with it’. But neither aside from presenting odd things that people do—the play seemed reluctant to explore the territory, to push further, to plunge darker—nor does it couch this enigma in anything else. The events that transpire in this play present the audience with situations in which people lie, with no apparent reason: to be loved, to be martyrs? And their motives remain ever mysterious as we move on to the next section.

 

Part three.

Two men dig. Around them: gum trees. The screens show the full moon rising. They don’t seem to know each other very well; the older man was chosen because his place was ‘on the way’. We don’t know why they’re there. They just keep digging. There’s a memento mori quality to the scene and it’s not dissimilar to the gravediggers in Hamlet (I seem to remember a Billy Crystal scene? Alas I could not find it). Tensions rise between the two men. While one is away, the other pockets a gun. When the one who left comes back he is wet, and in a state of euphoria. He’s married, apparently, and throws away his ring — this may have taken place before he got wet. They take a number of pills and together enter a heightened state — drugs, presumably, but what? At some point the younger man begins throwing objects out of the hole, including the plush bear — again, I don’t quite remember this in the order of events.

The older of the two men has never punched someone and so they organise to hit each other. They do. Then a young girl wearing a hospital smock appears. She tells them her name is Jennifer. The old man tells her that’s his wife’s name. The younger man basically tells her to fuck off. Just when she is about to leave, the older man questions why she says she has the same name as his wife. There is no real answer. The drugs kick in—too early in the old man, which leaves the younger man agitated—they’re sleeping pills, and the girl’s reason for being there is never explained. I wondered if perhaps Jennifer was one of the women from the first scene and this girl was the same girl as part two…perhaps not.

Finally, the rest of the company comes on stage together to listen to a phone answering machine; then misting sprinklers begin to spray them with water; then the lights dim; the curtains close.

Triumph is enigmatic. And you go into the production wanting to know more about the situations and people; they hold cards close to their chests and you wonder what makes them tick. The dialogue is written in such a way that you trust the production; van der Geer has a way of making each word seem to count. Everything feels bigger than it is. There is a sense of unease and gravitas. The unsaid fills the space. However, as the production trundles along, the promise of more never seems to be delivered upon, and the weight of the words slips away — perhaps they’re all too heavy, or were they always light? Answers never materialise but not in a way that suggests a multiplicity of them—the complexity of these people is undeniable—but in a way that seems like the questions never quite coalesced. We’re not let in enough to see whether or not the playwright knows what’s on the cards the characters are holding, or if she’s bluffing.

If the objective of the play is to present these people and these stories then that happened. But the surface of this show served to obfuscate its lack of tangible centre. Perhaps I fall down on the intentionality fallacy and I should just let the production be what it is; however, my response was that I got the impression that the play wasn’t letting me in.

There is clearly talent here in the New Working Group and it will be exciting to see them forge a niche as a ‘prestige’ company in the Melbourne independent scene.

 

Written by Louris van de Geer
Directed by Mark Pritchard

Set & Costume Design by Romanie Harper
Lighting Design by Amelia Lever-Davidson
Sound Design by Chris Wenn
Stage Manager/Production Manager Kate Brennan
Producers Jillian McKeague and Sam Butterworth
Image by Pier Carthew

Cast includes Aljin Abella, Syd Brisbane, Anouk Gleeson-Mead, Emma Hall, and Leone White

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