As someone who shies away from a synopsis read in favour of a surprise, I frequently find myself an audience member at an eclectic array of unexpected shows. Upon reflection, I should have been able to decipher at least something from the title of Malthouse’s latest play, Going Down, but I barely had time to take a gander at the program before the lights were up and the show had begun. Suffice to say, I was content with the content. In fact, I’m rarely disappointed with a Malthouse play, it’s a stellar place to see theatre in Melbourne and every time I go there I am thrilled with the bold and exciting choices they make, particularly when it comes to Set, Lighting and Sound Design. Going Down certainly delivered on all of these accounts.
What I keep coming back to with respect to my thoughts on this play is that it is probably the first time I have ever been to the theatre where I disliked the show at the start, and then found myself thoroughly enjoying it by the time curtain call rolled around. To put it simply, I really enjoyed this show, despite pretty strongly disliking the opening twenty minutes. What I so disliked was that the performances (particularly that of the lead, Catherine Davies) were so heightened that they were histrionic and almost reminiscent of what I would call Year 10 Drama acting. No truth, all pretence. A particular scene springs to mind as the three main cast members, Catherine Davies, Paul Blenheim and Naomi Rukavina sat around a table at what was meant to be a trendy bar in Preston, over- sharing and drinking themselves into oblivion on a school night. What I felt was displaced somehow was how the actors interacted with props (notably bottles of booze), like they were miming. They were really overplaying the drunken acting thing and I found it almost unbearable. This was coupled with an overt inclusion of Melbourne references that had me engaging in a bit of surreptitious eye rolling. It was all too much. For some reason though, at around the half hour mark, the style of performance caught up with the content and the show really started to sing. In fact, in the last five minutes of the play, I was so moved that I felt choked up (not a default position of mine). My lasting impression of the performances left me nothing but impressed by Catherine Davies’ unrelenting energy onstage. In many instances though, it was the ancillary characters that stole the show, with particular reference to Josh Price and his host of weird and wacky Inner North characters.
In terms of story, Going Down followed a pretty traditional Three-Act Structure from what I could see and it served them well. The writing (Michele Lee) really took the audience on a journey that built with great anticipation as the main character, Natalie, unravelled emotionally in the urban jungle that is Melbourne. The character development was on point, culminating in a certain level of enlightenment for Natalie and by virtue of this, the audience by the time we reached the climactic moments. Although themes such as cultural identity, sexuality and urban privilege were explored, it was the artist’s inner turmoil and desire to create and express, that I found the most interesting and relatable. What was also particularly poignant was the preoccupation in Michele’s writing with the uneasy battle of the post-modern feminist. The writing and indeed the direction (Leticia Cáceres) elevated this idea of cultural displacement and feelings of unease around identity, in this case, feminine identity. Beautifully done and expertly executed.
My biggest criticism of this show was that it was overcooked in parts. There was no subtlety in Melbourne almost playing a character in the play and serving as the backdrop. This was a shame because when the writing incorporated really truthful, yet more subtle nods to the city, without signposting, it was magic. An example of this was the inclusion of a ‘bike lane’ around the perimeter of the stage meaning that any time a character stepped into its domain, a colourful person would ride past on their bike or skateboard, yelling profanities. This was intrinsically Melbourne, without having to signpost the location. The audience knew very early on where the play was set and yet, the writing kept hitting us over the head with Melbourne references to the point where I felt like proclaiming, “We get it, the characters are hipsters and living on Melbourne’s North Side. Yes, I can see from their costumes that they wear Gorman. I don’t need to be told. I know where they’d go for a drink and that they’d thoroughly enjoy a self-indulgent book signing at the Wheeler Centre. I understand and recognise the demographic.”
What were particularly impressive were the Sets, Costumes, Lighting and Sound Design, all absolutely superb. Kudos to The Sisters Hayes, Sian James-Holland and THE SWEATS, respectively. The other highlight was the hilariously choreographed sex scenes involving both the lead Catherine Davies and Josh Price, the latter who played to perfection an array of sexual conquests. While I did feel like I was watching an episode of Sex and The City and one of Samantha’s many over-the-top escapades, it was nonetheless glorious and a welcomed homage.
What more can I say? Going Down was a great night out at the theatre and while I did have some criticisms, what I liked about the play was that it was raw and funny and surprising. At the end of the day, I’d rather see a play like Going Down where there were touches of brilliance, than something just moderately good all the way through.
Images: Brett Boardman