ENTERTAINING BUT LOSES ITS WAY
Written by Cherie Jacobson and Alex Lodge
Directed by Ed Watson
at BATS Theatre, 1 Kent Tce, Wellington
From 12 Apr 2012 to 21 Apr 2012
Reviewed by John Smythe, 13 Apr 2012
The title refers to the central character, Cleo Kline. It's how people describe her, apparently, although why the citizens of Huntly should spoonerise it is a mystery. It is not a title that captures the essence of the work, however, unless its true purpose is to show how some quaint Kiwi country folk cope with mental illness in the family.
Nucking Futs – from the team that brought us Tea for Toot – is inspired by the phenomenon of independent writers self-publishing e-books online in the virtual (but not exactly virtuous) minefield of blogs, Facebook, Twitter and 'reality' television.
Cleo has launched herself with a romance novel called Her Moist Abyss, which involves caving. A subsequent incident at a Whanganui Writers Week Q&A session – captured by way of a prologue – has led to her taking time out to meditate at what she is pleased to call a spiritual retreat and health spa.
She has also hired "a documentary crew to make a self-promotional film about ‘the woman behind the words'," as the media release puts it. The detail of who is paying what for this is glossed over, but it does become apparent Cleo has not retained any sort of editorial right over what footage gets used and how. She is not allowed to call "cut" and Chip the cameraman keeps saying he can make no promises about what may or may not be used, although it is not clear who he answers to or who holds what rights over the accumulating footage (or do we call it bytes these days?).
When her "polar opposite" sister Diane picks her up from the 'health spa' it becomes more apparent that Cleo's 'reality' is not shared by others. But although she is protective of her deluded sister, Diane is too seduced by the camera to be wary of its intrusions, not least because her own quest is to regain her title in the gingerbread construction section of the annual A&P Show baking competition, and a bit of media exposure will not go amiss.
These two roles are well delineated by their creators, Cherie Jacobsen (Cleo) and Alex Lodge (Diane), both extracting some good humour out of the camera's presence and the way it distorts the 'reality' of their behaviour.
Nick Zwart sketches in the underwritten role of Diane's husband, Damo; a big softy except when assertiveness is required.
The Insecure Writers' Support Group, convened by Cleo, involves Martha Boo (Kitty August, who also stage manages) and Raoul (Simon Haren) who turns out to be a phantom blogger called Trent. These roughly and unsubtly dramatised sequences serve to expose Cleo's egotism while offering a cautionary tale about 'publishers' who promise the world but ask writers to pay substantial sums for the privilege.
The danger of internet dating also comes into play as a catalyst for bringing Cleo's idyll to an end, leaving Chip (Ralph Upton) saddled with all the footage and the problem of where to take it. But is this an ending that delivers on the play's purpose or promise? If the footage is still in the can and has not gone public, let alone viral, what does it matter? There are no consequences for Cleo to deal with or us to conjure with. We are left to wonder who might possibly want it and who has wasted their time and money creating it. Is that the intention of the play?
I find myself wondering if Nucking Futs has suffered from 'vanity play writing syndrome' where, because the playwrights have written star roles for themselves and surrounded themselves with ciphers, the story they wanted to write – viz: "to explore how the Internet can feed delusions of grandeur and prey on people's naivety for the amusement of others" – has no chance of reaching its potential as an exposé of how people use and abuse each other, and self-destruct, in the quest for fame by exploiting the free availability of information as entertainment.
The roles of Chip (representing mass media) and Trent (representing social media) need to be developed as manipulators and exploiters of 'truth', with a thoroughly researched credibility that asserts their reality in the context of all the pseudo reality and virtual reality around them.
Perhaps the idea was that we, the audience, would represent the "others" to be amused by "the consequences of going viral" but, apart from the point that nothing does go viral, we are not cast in that role in a way that might make us question the morality of our participation in the network of exploitation.
The Jacqueline Howett example, which spawned the Guardian article which in turn spawned this play, is a cautionary tale about how reacting badly to a bad review has scuttled an aspiring writer's chances of ever being picked up by an established publisher. Linking to the blogged review and comments also offers amusement at her inability to see how clearly bad her grammar, punctuation and sentence structures are (even though Howett has now removed her posts).
The problem with Nucking Futs – ably mounted in a clever cardboard cut-out set of his own design by director Ed Watson – is that nothing of consequence is truly at stake because Cleo has no public standing, her actual writing is not put up for scrutiny, and rather than disgrace herself on the internet she has merely disrupted a small town writer's and reader's session, leaving her family and a few others to deal with the rather sad outcome. Her internet presence, as such, is inconsequential.
There is a suggestion at the end that Cleo has capitalised on her fame nevertheless with a book that exploits the exploiters, which could be a good punchline if only it had the requisite set-up. If just one clip of something she said or did were to hit YouTube and credibly go viral within the first third of the script, the intended play may get some traction.
As it stands, the inaptly-named Nucking Futs offers a platform for some entertaining performances but loses its way in attempting to explore its stated theme.
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See also reviews by:
Ewen Coleman (The Dominion Post);
Lynn Freeman (Capital Times);
|Martyn Wood||posted 13 Apr 2012, 07:03 PM|
John, you seemed to have missed a major plot point - the entire plot is set in motion by the review of Cleo's Her Moist Abyss on Rod's Reads (and the subsequent torrent of comments it inspired) going viral. The whole show is Cleo coping with the fallout of that, or did you think her 5000 Twitter followers were all from Huntly? Perhaps the sounds of constant, hysterical laughter from the nearly full house drowned out that crucial piece of dialogue for you?
|John Smythe||posted 14 Apr 2012, 09:30 AM|
Thanks for that, Martyn. I do have a note about Rod's Reads, following the first Insecure Writers' Support Group scene and before the reveal about Raoul. I just didn't clock it as the catalyst for "the whole show". Perhaps I missed a time-shift thing, or was it a bit of backstory exposition. Does Cleo respond to the Rod's Reads review, and to the responses to her responses, within the present action of the play?
I'll come again on Tuesday (prior to Other People's Wars) and if I realise I have factually misrepresented the play, I will add a correction to this thread.
|John Smythe||posted 17 Apr 2012, 11:12 PM|
On the second viewing I do see how Nucking Futs aims to confront the phenomenon of internet cruelty. Right at the start Cleo reports that she got a bad review on Rob's Reads but she's carted off before she can give us the guts. Later she and Diane deliver some expository reportage on what happened. But nothing in the present action of the play allows us to either empathise with her outrage or fear for what will happen to her, given her behaviour.
(Spoiler alert) Chip the cameraman and Raoul/Trent the predatory blogger do collude to exploit the delusional vulnerability of Cleo. Chip is a film school grad trying to get a break (so presumably is doing this for nothing) and Trent … Well I still don't see why he is going to all the trouble of physically entering her life to mess with her. (ends) I mean most 'meanness by meme' happens on the net in a series of mindless passing moments where the perpetrators don't stop to think about the actual person they are making fun of. That is the nature of what the play sets out to explore.
Besides which, this thread of the play is very much secondary to the dysfunctional sisters story, wherein scene after scene simply establishes the nature of each sister and their past and present relationship. It is a story that cries out for catharsis, for a crack in the facade the leads to a breakthrough of self awareness, even if it's just momentary ...
Yes it's quite entertaining – very sometimes – in its idiosyncrasy. But there is little drama, no build up of tension and so no release, built into the dramatisation. And there is no opportunity to engage empathetically with Cleo. If the play allowed us to first feel tempted to laugh at Cleo, then realise the ridicule had gone too far and feel compassion for her, while questioning our own attitudes and responses, it would be much more effective, theatrically and socially.
As it stands we just get to appraise the situation objectively.
|John Smythe||posted 18 Apr 2012, 04:51 PM / edited 18 Apr 2012, 04:56 PM|
The loop closes somewhat - or gets more loopy - with this from jacqueline Howett herself: http://jacquelinehowett.blogspot.co.nz/2012/04/nucking-futs-tidbit-links.html