Benjamin Law’s debut play, Torch the Place, has, excuse the obvious pun, set the Arts Centre Melbourne’s Fairfax Studio on fire! Recently announcing an extended season, the highly lauded Torch the Place is a huge win for both the work as well as MTC’s NEXT STAGE writers’ program.

Torch the Place had its premiere earlier this month and is dubbed as a poignant modern comedy.

Teresa’s Mum finds it impossible to let anything go – from grudges to household objects. She thinks of her home as a museum full of irreplaceable treasures. But she’s not really a curator – she’s a hoarder – and her house is enough to give Marie Kondo heart palpitations. When her children return home for her 60th birthday, it isn’t a reunion – it’s an intervention.

Actor Max  Brown (The Gloaming) plays Paul, who is Theresa’s husband, and a “second son” to the Choi family.  Paul’s heavily invested in the family’s welfare but his experience as a Vietnamese Australian is a little different to the rest of the kids, but it also allows him to see their situation with perspective. He’s there offering valiant assistance to the cause.

Brown loves how very sincere and genuine Paul is, without an ironic bone in his body. His lack of judgement of people and their actions is something, Brown says, he could definitely learn from. “We’re both from working class backgrounds, so I can definitely relate to him in that way,” says Brown. “I also love that he’s not the typical depiction of an Asian male character in western society, he has few if any of the stereotypical traits that are so often depicted in our culture…which is a breath of fresh air.”

This is Brown’s premiere with the MTC, and his first thought on hearing the news that he had won the role, was that they’d made  a huge mistake.  “It was daunting,” he says.  “I’ve been to see so much MTC over the years and been in awe of every show…and for some reason never seriously thought I’d be on the other side of the stage! It’s a huge honour.”

“My agent called me with the news while I was in the car with my mum, so she was the first person to hear the news, which was really very special for me as an Asian Australian (see mum? I’m not a doctor and it’s still ok). It was the first time she’d ever been there at the moment I’ve booked something and with the themes of Torch the Pace, it seemed kinda auspicious too.”

Brown admits to be in awe of the cast – Michelle Lim Davidson (Utopia), Diana Lin (The Farewell), Fiona Choi (The Family Law),  and Charles Wu (Doctor, Doctor) –  and crew (lead by director Dean Bryant) and says it is a dream to have the opportunity to work with such a talented team of artists.  Brown is also thrilled to be able to explore working in theatre for the first time in so long, after spending most of his time in TV.

Brown also acknowledges that learning from Dean Bryant’s brilliance over the course of the rehearsal process has been a priceless experience. “I can honestly say I’ve gotten more from a few weeks with Bryant than I did most acting courses and classes over the years,” he says. “Transferring whatever skills I’ve had from screen to stage has been challenging and so, so rewarding.”

Beyond that, Brown relates to the story as a son of migrants but also as someone who has had trouble letting go of the past and dealing with grief in his life. “That’s handled with tremendous heart, humour and grace by the story,” he says. “I think that will resonate with people of all backgrounds.”

Grief and trauma, and the ways we all attempt to deal with it and how it’s something we all need to learn to live with eventually are major themes of the work. “Not only with our own trauma, but how to recognize and support it in those we love as well,” says Brown.  “It’s about reaching a level of empathy and understanding in those relationships.”

Torch the Place is also about the migrant experience for Asians in Australia and specifically, Cantonese Chinese and how the challenges and triumphs in that experience manifest through first and second generations. Brown acknowledges that the play embraces those struggles with humour and realism. “When I read it, I realized for the first time that a lot of things I thought were just quirks of my parents or our family were actually shared in the greater Chinese community,” he says. “We weren’t that weird after all! Ok, maybe we are. But it’s nice to know we’re in good company.

And on that note; it’s just about family in general. I think any audience member will recognize the beautiful and heartbreaking relationships between mother and siblings.”

Law is a Sydney-based journalist, columnist, TV screenwriter and broadcaster and the creator of SBS’ award winning TV show, The Family Law. Bryant describes Law’s work as irreverent, sharp and intensely moving. Brown agrees, saying that Law’s style is to just go for the truth, no matter how weird, confronting or challenging it might be to admit and to embrace it with a laugh. “He doesn’t shy away from anything,” says Brown. “There’s a realism in his writing (I can vouch for having personally lived through some of the wilder things you see in the play – they can and do happen!) that grounds the audience and allows them to reflect on their own lives. Plus, poo jokes.

Brown encourages all to come to the show with an open heart, an open mind, and enjoy the ride – after all, full houses cannot be wrong!

Torch the Place plays at Arts Centre Melbourne until Monday 23 March.

Tickets on sale now for all performances at mtc.com.au

Images: Jess Busby

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