Now that I actually come to think of it, I don't think I've ever heard of -- let alone seen -- a play that deals so extensively with the fashion phenomenon of hipsterism as Robert Reid's new play On the Production of Monsters. This is sort of peculiar given how often the so-called new turks of theatre in Australia are lumped in together as hipsters.
Reid is no hipster, but as a Melburnian who clearly loves his home town, he can't help but have a kind of condescending affection for them. Indeed Reid's script reminds me a little of the attitude of the creator of Look At This Fucking Hipster, the now defunct photoblog that went viral a few years back:
"I don't hate hipsters. Not at all. I just find them to be wildly fascinating. And if that sounds condescending, that's because yes, I am being condescending. Obviously. But I do think condescension comes from a gentler place, don't you?"
I think Reid's condescension also comes from a gentle place – some very rough things happen to his hipster protagonists, Ben and Shari, but they're ultimately treated fairly mildly. Perhaps more so than they deserve to be, given the scenario.
The couple, played by Virinia Gay and James Saunders, who also play the multiple sundry roles, are prototypical hipsters, ironical to the point of mocking other hipsters more hipsterish than themselves. But when Ben accidentally forwards a "kind of porny" image of a young girl to an eager reporter from the Northcote Leader, an image that was in turn forwarded to him by his boss, no level of self-aware detachment can save them from the almighty flood of public outrage that envelops them.
One of the highlights of this production is the slick melding of set and sound, courtesy of Andrew Baily and Kelly Ryall respectively, with helpful lighting from Richard Vabre. There's a kind of reckless creativity and messy energy in it that gives the limited drama of what is a very talky play an unlikely visual fascination. The set in particular is impressive. Props pop-up out of the bare stage and accrue around the two players, cluttering the space as events reach their crisis, adding to the overall sense of emergency. It's witty, too, and attentive to the script, with every prop disclosing some secondary comment on Melbourne beneath the stage. In one scene, Ben asks if anyone can smell burnt toast, as people are known to do when they're about to pass out. Quite apart from anything else, it's funny because he's standing on an actual toaster built into the stage, used in a previous scene.
Virginia Gay and James Saunders seem to revel in this playground, and their performances are always pushing toward caricature. This is not necessarily a criticism, because many of Reid's characters do seem brashly drawn, but the endless fun does sometimes squeeze out the more serious subtext, particularly the question of taking personal responsibility for your actions, which surely must be at the heart of any examination of mob hysteria. Director Clare Watson could perhaps have insisted on a few more expressive or emotive moments, but Reid's constant deferral of confrontation leaves little room for this.
In one sense it is quite canny to pour the problems raised by the Bill Henson scandal into the world of hipsters. A true hipster is extremely self-regarding, without at all being open to self-examination, a kind of carnival mirror to the pious newspaper moralist who ostentatiously flaunts his or her conventional morality without ever examining it. Hipsters too are super nostalgic, with a well developed taste for the kitsch of childhood -- vintage tee-shirts and the like. It's a fetishisation that suggests similarities to the fetishisation of childhood that inevitably emerges in child-abuse-or-art scandals. It is clever, but perhaps Reid is too elliptical in the treatment of this material. Motivations remain obscure. Why, for example, does the spin doctor drop all her clients to help a guy she's just met on the train? And why does she increase Ben's exposure, exactly the opposite of Sue Cato's strategy, Bill Henson's actual spinner in 2008? She calls it a gamble, but what could she have won? There is the briefest suggestion that she once was a child model herself and thinks the girl in the image has nothing to be ashamed of -- but is that reason enough to ruin her own business?
Moreover, the hipster-bashing thing, as gentle as it is here, does feel a bit dated. LATFH was funny. Definitely. So is Monsters. But LATFH was also three years ago. In a play that deals so much in fashion and memes, this feels like a problem. Still there are some very interesting scenes that do hint darkly at the dirty world of universal suspicion that awaits if the so-called defence of childhood is taken to its extreme.
In the end what comes through strongest of all in this production is a kind of twisted paean to inner-city Melbourne. Almost to the point where the city overwhelms all else. This in itself interesting, because inner-city Melbournians tend to think of themselves as more sophisticated that the rest of the country, and less likely to be drawn into the tabloid sensations that Reid references. The question he asks, via his typically scintillating and dialogue and sharply cut scenes, is whether that is true.
Robert Reid discusses On the Production of Monsters