Located in Southbank’s arts precinct, Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre is known for presenting experimental, challenging, and thought – provoking work.

This season in particular, is no exception.

So far, the company’s exciting line – up for 2016 has included critically – acclaimed productions of ‘Edward II’, ‘The Glass Menagerie’, ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’ and ‘Every Brilliant Thing’.

‘Gonzo’, with both concept and direction by Clare Watson, is potentially their most controversial offering yet. A collaboration with the St. Martins Ensemble, the show is a staged exploration about teenage boys and their exposure to internet pornography.

Almost seven hundred youngsters aged between twelve and eighteen, were interviewed as the key resource for this piece.  Of these subjects, one in ten was worried he or she is addicted to porn.

Still very much a taboo subject around the world, several examples from mainstream American television have dealt with this hot button topic using subtle yet incisive humour.

Before he became an A – List motion picture director in Hollywood, Judd Apatow helmed a brilliant program set in 1980 called ‘Freaks and Geeks’ (1999). Sadly, his groundbreaking nostalgia about the rites of passage lasted a mere season, but has attained strong cult status since.

One episode detailed how three male friends, Neil, Bill and Sam, borrowed an 8mm skin flick from an older class mate.

Relaxing in the privacy of Neil’s parents’ garage, this extended section captured the trio watching the reel entirely from their point of view.  In the scenes that followed, ‘Freaks and Geeks’ explored how the experience individually affected all three boys.

To cut a long story short, when a school councillor picked up on Sam’s out of character behavior, he handled the situation with both supportive maturity and insight. Sam wasn’t made to feel either embarrassed or ashamed, but the youth understood that he had experienced something made for adults only.

‘The Real O’Neals’ is a fast – paced and intelligently – scripted comedy about life growing up in a mildly – dysfunctional, middle class family.  In one recent chapter, two teenage brothers decide to look at some internet porn ‘strictly for research purposes’.

The younger of the two was struggling with ‘coming out’, and his older sibling wanted to be supportive in that process. Being a sitcom, their interaction together was written just for laughs.  Further, the punch line’s outcome showed how they were both completely freaked out by the experience.

However, the segment caused a great deal of public outrage for two reasons. Firstly, the show addressed that kids do look at x – rated material online and secondly, it emphasized how simple it was for them to obtain it.

‘America Now’ discussed the growing problem in a far more serious light, with the current affairs special outlining a handful of shocking facts.

Content could be easily accessed on computers, as well as tablets and smart phones.  Also, children aged between twelve and seventeen, are one of the largest consumer groups of online porn. To the makers and manufacturers of porn, they are a massive money crop in waiting.

Experts said this early exposure to sexually – explicit video can hook kids on hard – core and often violent imagery.

One crusader, herself a former adult entertainment star, said that viewing porn creates an addictive chemical reaction in your brain.  She also said that for teens, this is one hundred – fold during puberty, as they are still in the growth pattern.

‘America Now’ went on to list some of the warning signs associated with teen internet porn addiction. These included failing grades, social isolation from family and friends, lying or being secretive about how they spend their time, and depression.

‘Out of the Shadows: Understanding Sexual Addiction’ by Patrick J. Carnes is a highly respected book which reasons that healthy sex is at the core of grown men’s identities. Citing actual case studies, Carnes claims that when sex becomes compulsive, it can unravel victims lives as well as those around them.  Like gambling or alcohol abuse, internet porn often entrapped patients prior to recovery for many years.  The book however, offers helpful steps as a pathway back to self – management.

I have been a reviewer for Theatre People since 2010. In six years, my contribution to the site includes almost one hundred play, musical, dance, festival and event critiques. My voice is but a single opinion, with the intention of getting people to see and experience the magic of theatre.

It is not my job to cover the what shows do but to rate how well they do it, discussing neither scripting or content, but their overall production choices. On this basis, ‘Gonzo’ is potentially the most difficult work I have ever been asked to examine.

With a running time of sixty – five minutes, ‘Gonzo’ is free – form in its structure. Urban dictionaries define it as an exaggerated, subjective and fictionalised style of journalism, crazy or stoned human behaviour, or filmed pornography lacking any narrative set – up.

Without any apparent storyline, four young actors represent a specific cross – section of the above – mentioned interviewees. Their approach to the material is conversational in style, raw and unpolished.

There is the cool guy, the alternative guy, the average Joe and the geek.  It should be noted these performers, Ari Long, Jack Palit, Sam Salem and Sol Rumble were key contributors in creating ‘Gonzo’.

Sitting around in private conversation with one another, they discuss such random topics as designer bottled water, smart phone bandwidth, popular movies and television shows.  It is a clever way to relax the audience; they are everyday kids after all.

When the topic suddenly jumps into their singular experiences, the show takes on an almost outer body approach.  The lights immediately dim, and an oversized projected screen behind them flashes with neon – driven imagery. (Spare and unobstructed set design is by Watson and Stewart Campbell, simple costumes are by Maima Massaquoi, with fluid stage management supported by Tom Webster).

Sitting or standing in the spotlight, each boy is suddenly alone.  As audience members, we are witnessing their multimedia experiences from the inside out. (Reinforcing this apparent interactivity, video design is by Michael Carmody, composition and sound is by Russell Goldsmith, and lighting is by Richard Vabre.)

The boys’ language describes with graphic detail the range of imagery they have each seen and when they first watched it, using the slang terms associated with this soft and increasingly hard core material as well.  Recall was driven by a casual, almost detached nonchalance.

At what point does private, compartmentalised behaviour spill over into other aspects of people’s lives, sometimes with damaging results?

I was thinking that this would be addressed when a fifth element was introduced late in the show. Gala Vanting was not a composite character but an actual entrepreneur, sex worker, and performance artist.  She also makes empowering erotic media for web, screen and print.  Asking her intelligent questions beyond their years, the young men seemed curious and supportive of her work.

Here ‘Gonzo’ needed a second act pay – off; this section simply did not ring true. Where it had the potential to be a cautionary tale about too much, too soon, potentially turned the experience into a hipster, cool for school user’s guide.

My plus – one for the evening, a secondary level educator, noted that internet pornography became a habitual part of the characters’ daily online routine, sometimes viewed once or even twice a day for hours at a stretch. It also appeared to formulate their views on human physical standards, objectifying men and women in such a way that fantasy became the expectation far above the norm.

As fate would have it, two of their year twelve students were also in attendance. Though they were the prime demographic for this show, to them it seemed like a watered down representation of the issue, more about teenage boys than actually for them.

That the show neither denounced or supported its availability, but rather fleshed out the source material as its talking point, perhaps the point of ‘Gonzo’ was to simply trigger a gut reaction.

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