01 July 2011

Review: The Joy of Text

The Joy of Text
MTC
15 June 2011
Fairfax Studio, the Arts Centre
to 23 July
www.mtc.com.au


As if I'm not going to love a work that opens with someone looking for their Fowler's*, literally reminds us that satire is meant to be funny and references the Electra story, the Demidenko debacle and the disturbing semiotics of Prince Caspian. The text of Robert Reid's The Joy of Text is indeed a joy and I loved it all the more for its over-educated, middle-class (sorry Rob) literary references and its grammar pedantness.

It's also a disturbing reflection on the contextualisation of sexual consent. In a society where grown and wealthy men are deemed powerless against teenage girls and our informed media would rather a story about a vindictive slut than a clear explanation of statutory rape, the sexual consent of children (who are not small adults) is still something we need to discuss. And Reid may be the only person who could have me laughing about it.

Danny (James Bell) is a too-smart-for-his-own-good student who is willing to confront his teachers (Louise Siversen and Peter Houghton), especially when he's asked to read a controversial book that he suspects is written by Ami (Helen Christinson), the cute young literature teacher who has indicated that she appreciates his brain.

Aidan Fennessy is one of the best comedy directors in our town, but focusing on the easy giggles in Joy takes away from its strength.  It is a piece founded on humour, but the grammar wit, Helen Garner references and delightfully perfect sentences are the grace notes and the breathing space to the dark and confronting humour that drives it. By embracing the blackness of the humour, Siversen's performance is the highlight of the evening and comes closest to the dangerous tone that defines all of Reid's work.

Reid is asking us to laugh at the possible rape of two school children. This is an issue of distorted power and status, but the status and power relationships are missing on the stage.  Students and teachers don't interact like mates, neither do principals and their staff.  So, even though it's fun to watch Houghton's very funny buffounish principal, it undermines the intent of the work by creating a comfortable buffer between us and the content.  By playing the easy laughs, we're never concerned for Danny's or Ami's well being, because the damage and the stakes are minimised.

No matter what, it's wonderful to see the work of a local independent playwright on a mainstream stage. The co-founder of theatre in decay has written more plays than many people have seen.  I first saw Rob perform one of his works many years ago in an outside courtyard in Canberra. A handful of people shared the experience and all knew that this was someone whose theatre demands attention.

The Joy of Text is just as angry as his decay work, but it's less personal, less ranty, far funnier and his characters are less damaged. This personal distance is vital to create work that broad commercial audiences are going to love, but I'd love to see his next work be a bit more dangerous and to come a bit more from the heart.

* dictionary of Modern English Usage

This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com

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