The performance at the heart of The Performance is a Samuel Beckett play, Happy Days. It was Beckett’s sixth play, written in response to his wife requesting something less depressing. I’m not sure he knew how to do that though. The play revolves around a central character, Winnie, a woman in her fifties. In Act 1, Winnie is trapped in a mound up to her waist. In Act II she is suddenly buried up to her neck. We don’t know why and if Winnie knows, she’s not saying. She is alone most of the time, yet we are all aware of her partner, Willie, somewhere behind her mound. Despite the title, this is not a happy play.
Having only ever seen Waiting For Godot by Beckett, I can only imagine Happy Days, (I’m imagining absurd, bleak and bemusing) but Thomas brings the play to life through the eyes of her three protagonists, to create an extraordinary reading experience!
I cannot remember the last time I was genuinely unable to put down a book. I was so caught up in my reading experience of The Performance that I forgot where I was and how much time had passed. It was a book that I almost read in just one day, and where I spent the following day at work, counting down the minutes until I could go home and finish the last fifty pages.
Our three female protagonists are a twenty-something, forty-something and sixty-something, all attending the play for their own reasons. As the lights fade and darkness descends, in the cocooning space of the theatre, these women find that the action on the stage triggers thoughts and feelings that take them on their own interior journeys. Daily tasks get ticked off mental lists. Doubts, insecurities and personal issues are mulled over. The state of the environment outside (the catastrophic bushfires of last summer) are contrasted to the cool air-con bubble inside, and also constantly brought to mind, thanks to the blazing, unrelenting ‘sun’ that beats down on Winnie, on stage.
Winnie’s day cycles around her need for order and routine. She has devised daily, repetitive tasks to make her day go by quickly and to give it some sense of purpose. This includes sorting through and reorganising her bag of personal possessions – an odd assortment of material objects that she holds dear. All the while, half of her is constantly hidden from view. Is she decaying or just stuck? Can anyone hear her when she talks? When Willie is around to hear, does he actually listen, does he understand? Typical Beckett existentialism, in other words.
The Performance is a character driven story. The three women (Margot, Summer and Ivy) find themselves distracted by their own thoughts. They wander off down well-worn grooves of thinking and soul-searching…about that thing they said or didn’t say, problems at work, in their relationships, the aches and pains of ageing and maintaining an image. Thomas draws them sympathetically and realistically.
Margot: “She wishes she were more lovable, somehow. She wishes he could just give her a hug and love her….Margot has paused once or twice during her career to reflect on her frenetic disposition that manifests as compulsive busyness. Perhaps it is a decoy to avoid the truth of herself.”
Summer: “She was living in precisely the way she’d hoped she would. Seventeen-year-old Summer would have been impressed with the twenty-year-old version of herself in Melbourne. Her seventeen-year-old self would have assumed that her twenty-year-old self was an effortless local being effortlessly cool in a cool place to live and hang out…But Summer is seeing a therapist for anxiety…Summer is not effortlessly cool…Performing in the right way each day is exhausting her.”
Ivy: “Ivy suspects that feeling confused about whether one is being ironic is a key indicator of approaching middle age…She wishes she were more evolved, more aware and in control of the tenuous boundary between what is concealed and what is not.”
The Performance was fascinating, absorbing and compelling. It brought to mind my experience whilst reading The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose a few years ago, that same heady mix of art and personal story, memory and acting, facades and reality. The role of art in making meaning in our lives, especially during a time of crisis, was also explored by Emily St. John Mandel in Station Eleven.
I’ll let you discover for yourself what Thomas does with her characters during the interval.
My only quibble, is the ending. Although, how on earth you would end a book about a play any differently, I do not know.
I’m calling it early, but I predict this will be on next year’s Stella Prize shortlist.
Margot is shuffling in a balletic first position along the strip of carpet between the legs of the already-seated people in the theatre and the chair backs of the row in front.
- Hilton Als White Girls
I can’t write one complete sentence about her because she was her own complete sentence, and her sentence about herself was better than anyone else’s because she uttered it sort of without thinking while thinking too much, I can’t tell you how unusual that is in the world where, nowadays, no one leaves the house without some kind of script.
How she enjoyed it! How she loved sitting here, watching it all! It was like a play. It was exactly like a play. Who could believe the sky at the back wasn’t painted?
- Fugitive Blues (2008)
- Winner of the Dobbie Award for Women Writers 2009
- Longlisted for the Miles Franklin 2009