A Response: Blessed | Attic Erratic, Poppy Seed Festival & Malthouse

November 16, 2016 § Leave a comment

The walls are torn, they’re a grimy green and at their feet lie garbage bags filled with God knows what. There’s one window, too high to see out of, which lets in a stream of sunlight that throws the gloomy darkness into relief. Then there are the fluorescent lights of the interior. They’re harsh and unforgiving, particularly on those dank green walls. So much light, yet so much darkness.

Two people take their place within this world as we watch on. One is a slumped, defeated man called Grey (Matt Hickey) and the other is a self-assured but hardened woman named Maggie (Olivia Monticciolo). It’s his place. Why is she here? They’re old lovers and it’s been ten years since they’ve seen each other. Recently she woke up dreaming about him. She’s been getting sick, vomiting, and felt compelled to track him down. She called his mother, who wasn’t even sure he was still alive. He is. He’s here. She’s found him. But he’s changed. No longer the dorky, gawky fifteen-year-old she met and fell in love with, he’s sullen and sunken, living in squalor. She’s changed too; no longer the doubting, unwounded girl she once was, she’s now prickly, rough, as though she’s ‘seen things’. Their past plays out through a series of flashbacks. How their relationship began—him and his mates calling out numbers to label women on a scale of 0–10—how it unfolded and finally, why he left.

(Spoliers from here) Grey hears voices. He always has. He believes Maggie is the mother of God. And that he is the angel Gabriel. He ran away to protect her. By keeping her ignorant of this information and sacrificing his own life—he now lives in hiding from the world and God—he can ensure that she lives her life as ‘normally’ as possible. Now he informs her, she is pregnant with a second coming. By the finale, Grey has embodied his true form, wingspan spread across the flat and Maggie is convinced that her child will be exactly what this cruel and rotten world needs. The play ends with a tableau of an angel, a mother on a bed, and a blinding light.

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Copyright Sarah Walker

It is fitting that Blessed, by Fleur Kilpatrick, has its genesis in a world just post Abbott’s first budget and comes to fruition now that we’ve gone over the edge into a future filled with Trump. There’s a lot to disentangle. But it’s mostly the context and implication of the production; rather, than what’s going on in the text itself. The story is quite simple. It’s about love. It’s about people from low socio-economic backgrounds. And it’s about the desire to leave but the reality of staying where you are: made clear by the characters’ ongoing conversation about staying or leaving the flat. The craft is clear and Kilpatrick’s dialogue is crisp. There’s comedy and clarity in this little world. But the ramifications of some of the ideas are far-reaching.

Kilpatrick is writing as someone “fuming at the disregard and disrespect our society [has] for those struggling financially and the way in which we [are] embarrassed to meet their eyes on public transport.” There is a sense that Kilpatrick is not necessarily part of this world and this otherness is exacerbated by the imposition of religion onto the text — the road to hell is paved with good intentions, as they say. She says she is “drawn to the Bible as a source material in the same way that other theatre-makers are drawn to The Greeks but [thinks that] the Bible is still at the heart of our atheistic society.” The consequences—unintended, perhaps—is that the religiosity ultimately disempowers the characters. It actually alleviates the burden on the middle and upper class by implying that salvation will come for these people externally and that the power is out of their hands. It also suggests that those who are struggling socio-economically are to be condemned to their hellish lives, until a saviour arrives; they cannot help themselves.

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Copyright Sarah Walker

Kilpatrick’s first foray into the Biblical, The City They Burned never had the promise of a God — quite the opposite, it was a brutal Old Testament wrath-filled work, in which two angels disguised as businessmen lay waste to Sodom. By the end of act one, an immersive ‘dinner party’, most of the town is dead. In act two—a more traditional audience-actor setting—Lot’s daughters get him drunk and rape him in order to, they think, restart the world. Blessed slips into the salvation mode of the New Testament uneasily. In fact, the notion that there could be salvation for these people via a higher power is almost insulting. If we cannot meet their eyes on public transport, is it okay to gawk at them now from the comfort of theatrical darkness? Where is the line between insight and voyeurism?

There is another reading. Perhaps Grey is mentally unwell. Maybe he is not Gabriel and maybe Maggie is not the mother of God. Perhaps he needs to see a way out of this world, a way that frees him from only seeing his own shortcomings and failures. And for all we know, Maggie is looking to justify an unwanted pregnancy; or, she isn’t pregnant at all. If this is true then the text is even more damning. These people have been so forgotten by us that there is very little left in their lives. The text itself does leave these loopholes. The production does not. There is a passage in Tony Kushner’s playwright’s notes for Angels in America on the staging, which says, “The moments of magic . . . are to be fully realised, as bits of theatrical illusion . . . it’s okay if the wires show” (italics in original). Not everyone has read these notes, of course, but the theatrical imperative of the audience to believe remains the same. We can’t help but hold the same in Blessed. The grandiosity and conviction of the action and characters, particularly their complete realisation through theatrics, leaves very little doubt about veracity. And so, we cannot believe that the voices are not real. Can we? Some may have their doubts but these come from the text and ignore the production as seen. To pretend the wings of an angel have not spread across the stage is to annul the entire production, and deflate the drama completely. If we do not believe that these wings are real then the entire show is also nothing but two people playing poor, the façade is exposed.

All this is to say, the desire for the characters to fixate on religion is not necessarily true to their situations but rather highlights the writer’s position and power to write into these people’s lives whatever she wants. The poetry, romance and salvation within the words alienate the audience from the reality of these characters; they begin err towards “unrealistic” so that we cannot see a reflection of a society facing the consequences at the ‘end of the age of entitlement’, but simply two hopeless people who may or may not be the embodiment of Christian figures.

One review levels this critique at the production quite explicitly, saying:

“There’s something incredibly uncomfortable about seeing a show about poor people by non-poor people, essential for rich people in one of Melbourne’s most highly regarded theatre venues . . . Blessed has been described as an ‘insight into the lower class’ and as someone who grew up in a family with very little money, I honestly just find that offensive.”

While the backgrounds of the creatives are relatively unknown (and it is dangerous to assume anything about people you don’t know), the quotes and impetus mentioned above expose a gap between the intention and the reception of the production. Some would argue the background of the playwright has little to do with the work itself, while others would say it is essential. It’s complicated. The author has been dead (not Fleur, thankfully) for quite some time, and authorial intent is not really taken into consideration, as much as the reader’s response. But what happens when the reader’s response explicitly takes into account the author’s intent? And is hypersensitive to the lived experience of those creating the work.

Lionel Shriver’s speech earlier in the year is a cultural case study. It caused walkouts, think pieces, and provoked heated debate in the literary community. She argued, “fiction is inherently inauthentic . . . it’s all about what you can get away with.” And therefore she is comfortable writing the experience of an African-American woman, much to the disappointment of some of her audience. There is a difference here, of course; it’s one thing to say that you can write from the experience of a person of colour, and another to imagine what it’s like to be further disadvantaged (and still white) — yet the ‘who can write what’ debate rages on in all areas of the arts and no one is spared. While it may seem suffocating and claustrophobic to some (often white people) and occasionally seems to turn into an (arguably) unhelpful witch-hunt online, it’s really a false ground for discussion.

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Copyright Sarah Walker

Omar Sakr sheds some light on the issue:

“The question is not, for example, can a white person write an indigenous person’s story? The question is, should a white person publish a story from an indigenous person’s perspective . . . Is it ethical for a white person to use their access, to profit from a story using experiences not their own.”

So, if we extrapolate this across to the discussion of those from low socio-economic backgrounds, we can understand the anger and disappointment (and disempowerment) felt by some audience members, prompting the reaction, “it portrays us as people with no agency and no control over our lives.”

Just to be clear, this critique of Blessed is not alone; Cameron Woodhead echoes the sentiments saying, “Kilpatrick’s treatment of class can seem insufficiently grounded.” And Kate Herbert says, “though the play challenges one’s complacency about the social conditions of people like Grey and Maggie, it also leaves one feeling helpless and hopeless.” As stated, some would argue that it doesn’t matter what you write as long as it’s good and these shortcomings could therefore be seen as a failure of craft, as opposed to content; that it to say, if it were ‘good’ then these criticisms would not be made. But I think that is really beside the point.

In contrast, Maxim Boon writes that the play has a “surprisingly alert connection to the geopolitical zeitgeist, Kilpatrick has crafted a sophisticatedly paced drama, balancing a push-pull equilibrium between stark authenticity and literary finesse.” The response demonstrates the play’s ability to elicit a sympathetic response from the audience. More than that, there is solidarity. He continues, in reference to the play’s climax, “One can’t help but feel it was a similar and understandable swell of anger from those masses disenfranchised and abandoned by society.” Similarly, David Collins identifies with the religious dimention of the text (in his discussion of the local Presbyterian church while growing up) and comends the “delightfully horrid . . . portrayals” of the characters as well as the “beauty amongst the brutality”.  In summation, he says Blessed “colours outside the lines and is all the more brilliant for it.” So there are clearly mixed responses, which enables a fertile ground for discussion. If a production gets people talking about the issue it’s about, is it successful?

The ambition to write a piece dealing with class is worthwhile, certainly, now as ever; however, the execution reveals even larger structural issues within the arts and begs a number of questions, from within the show to the show’s context. Are these people hopeless? Why have they been depicted as hopeless? Why have they got no escape? Why are we in one of the preeminent temples to theatre in Melbourne, in a space literally called The Tower, watching two desperate people love each other to their own destruction? And if the production is supported, why is Blessed programmed in Poppy Seed in the first place? And, perhaps most worryingly, why is Poppy Seed itself, from my knowledge of those involved and publicity (so hopefully I am wrong) so white?

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Copyright Sarah Walker

There are simple answers and there are more complicated answers. The simple answer is that Fleur Kilpatrick is a good writer; that the play has been short-listed and or won awards and no one else will do it; that her career deserves support (as do the careers of those involved); and that opportunities across the board are hard to come by and no one in a community almost devoid of funding would honestly turn down a chance to get a show up. The complicated answers are . . . well, more complicated. They also deserve specific attention and engagement by a diverse range of voices.

As previously stated, Blessed’s text is relatively straightforward and somewhat innocuous. In fact, despite its discussion of drugs, abuse, sex and hardship, not a lot actually happens on the stage; we’re mostly spared the grotesquery and confrontation. Regardless, it’s nice to see a narrative driven piece of writing; although, perhaps this kind of writing more readily exposes shortcomings, whereas a more post-dramatic text is perceived as more elusive or all-encompassing. The commitment to character and circumstance displayed here means that the playwright must make decisions. That’s scary. Commitment opens a text and a playwright up to debate. By contrast, a production that resists committing evades the same criticisms but also reveals itself as theatrical ephemera — it’s safer but less successful. At least with a line in the sand we’re clear about where we stand.

Here, the context of the production compounds nuances within the play and the implications, as suggested, are sprawling. This may have little to do with Blessed itself and more to do with the current climate but it’s difficult to ignore the niggling voice in your head while watching that says something very bad is coming; that perhaps it’s already here. And if Blessed is to be believed, there’s nothing to be done.

BY / Fleur Kilpatrick

DIRECTION & PRODUCER / Danny Delahunty

SET & PROPERTIES DESIGN / Luc Favre

LIGHTING DESIGN / Rob Sowinski

SOUND DESIGN / Tom Pitts

CAST INCLUDES / Matt Hickey, Olivia Monticciolo

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