Heading into Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune at fortyfive downstairs I was quite excited, to see the story of a middle aged couple onstage, it is a tragically rare to see older women on Australian stages without the overbearing label of Mother or Spinster. The show is also directed by a woman, Colette Mann, and so my inner feminist was very pleased. After quite a risqué opening scene, it seemed that we were witnessing a refreshingly honest story that embraced and celebrated female sexuality, and the near full-house of mainly middle aged theatre-goers were engaging with great enthusiasm. Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before my enthusiasm turned to discomfort, and then very quickly to disbelief and anger. For me, this so-called ‘love story’ was an over-long 100 minutes of witty back-and-forth between Frankie (Kate Kendall) and Johnny (Damien Richardson) that was tainted by a dark undercurrent of chauvinism and internalised misogyny, a dangerous demonstration of the ingrained no-means-yes culture that paints romance as a war of attrition.

I will say that the majority of the audience seemed to enjoy the production. There was uproarious laughter as Johnny pursued Frankie with unrelenting enthusiasm, which at times gave way to concerned, compassionate silence as the production attempted to justify Johnny’s aggressive wooing and Frankie’s self-destructive behaviour through underdeveloped character histories filled with abuse and trauma. I don’t doubt the authenticity of this story, I am sure there are people all over the world for whom watching this production would be like gazing into a mirror, but I don’t think it is responsible to present a story like this without recognising the dangerous undertones and problematizing the threatening behaviours that are onstage.

Frankie and Johnny is described as the story of two co-workers who ‘tumble into bed’ after a first date, and then over the course of the night begin to open up to each other, revealing the scars of love and loss, helping each other to heal. But what I saw was a man who refused to leave a woman’s apartment even though she asked, demanded, then begged him to leave; a man who sought to justify his intimidating behaviour by professing his undying love for a woman he barely knew; a man who continued to stare and leer and smother her with creepy compliments even though she asked him multiple times to stop. At one point, Frankie asks Johnny to leave and he refuses, she threatens to call the cops and he laughs, saying he will just come back tomorrow and the next day, she says that she will go to the window and scream if he doesn’t leave and he just laughs and implies that no-one would hear her. He seeks to control the way she speaks, telling her angrily to ‘talk nice’ even as he throws juvenile and arguably offensive terms at her and tells her to ‘take a compliment’ when she objects to the way he speaks about her body.

And then there was the dismissive fashion in which the play dealt with very clear-cut domestic violence. Frankie reveals that she often watches two couples in a building across the road, the younger couple is violent and Frankie sighs as she recalls that she often sees the woman on the street covered in bruises. The older couple simply sit in silence. These couples are only brought up once and Frankie’s response is so dismissive – she regrets the situation but believes there is nothing she could or should do – I would argue that this moment, without being problematized by the production, proves that this play has no place in the landscape of contemporary Australian theatre.

The structure of the play seemed drawn out and ineffective. It may just have been because of how uncomfortable I felt but I really wanted the play to finish after the first act. With the couple back in bed together it seemed like the natural ending, but instead the story continues with more rapid, witty back and forth, more of Frankie asking Johnny to leave and more of him refusing: it was like a domestic Waiting for Godot. While there were further revelations about the abuse and trauma that had worn away at Frankie and Johnny over the years, this did not result in any more sympathy for the characters.

For me, there were simply no redeeming qualities in Johnny, his sad story about losing his mother, wife and kids doesn’t justify his behaviour. Frankie, too, suffered loss in her youth but doesn’t feel the need to act in the same brusque, entitled manner. There is certainly some tenderness between the two, particularly in the opening moments, and Frankie’s receptiveness to Johnny can be rationalised as we learn that she is actually a survivor of domestic violence herself, and survivors can often find themselves trapped in cycles of violence. But I found it appalling that the continuation of the relationship, which is suggested at the end of the play, is held up as a positive, romantic step forward in both their lives. I thought that the couples that they had watched across the city should have been better utilised as a foreboding representation of what lay in store for Frankie and Johnny. The fact that they mentioned the fate of the eponymous couple set a Chekhovian gun onstage which went unfired.

Although the script was extremely problematic, the direction only compounded the troubling representation of this courting couple. Johnny was so often using his physical presence to intimidate Frankie – running at her, grabbing her, holding her, leering over her – that I felt constantly on edge, concerned for her physical safety. If he had been even a little moved by her insistence that he leave the apartment he might have come across as lonely and desperate rather than dangerous. Frankie seemed quite firm in her desire to have Johnny out of the apartment: if it really was a front then perhaps it needed to be more obvious that she wanted him to stay. As it stands, Frankie’s fear that she was alone in her apartment with a maniac seemed only too real and the production risks validating the no-means-yes attitude towards sex ad relationships that so often leads to trauma and tragedy.

The performances themselves were solid, although the New York accents were at times distracting. I believed the turmoil in Kendall’s Frankie, and was moved by her vulnerability, fascinated by the contradiction between her desire for physical comfort and her will to remain stoic and strong in the face of the overbearing man in her apartment. Richardson’s Johnny was full of energy, and he managed to move believably between moments of cheeky kindness, frustration, despair and cruel insistence. Ultimately, though, I was utterly appalled by Johnny and I don’t think that was what the production intended.

Jacob Battista’s set design was the hero of the piece. An entire apartment was laid out in front of the audience and it was homely, functional, and completely believable. The use of fortyfive downstairs’ space was simply inspired, the venue added so much to the atmosphere of the production: the industrial windows, tall, paint-peeling walls and the sounds of firetrucks roaring past outside really captured the New York aesthetic.

It was a shame, though, that the lighting design by Michael Tait and Chris Kappa did not always do justice to the incredible set. The lighting seemed uneven and patchy, but not in a way that made sense in relation to the lamps that were part of the set. That being said, the designer’s use of lamps, natural light from the street through the windows and soft blues gave the piece a homely warmth that sometimes softened the uncomfortable elements of the story.
Brendan Geaney’s sound design was understated but added a lot to the production, the classical radio station reflecting the turbulent rhythm of the couple’s relationship. The costumes, too, were simple but effective. For much of the first act the two characters are naked, which I thought bode well for an honest exploration of middle-aged sexuality, but quickly turned voyeuristic when they slipped back into their clothes and Johnny began demanding her re-exposure in a manner both juvenile and menacing.

There were some really excellent examples of sophisticated and well-honed craft in this production but the problematic nature of the story makes it difficult to recommend.