Review by Greta Doell
It’s certainly a tumultuous time to take part in the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, as the cloud of covid-19 restrictions still casts a shadow over the Arts industry. This is not a subtle shadow and no fault of the festival. Ticket sales are chaotic, and more often than not disappointing, across entertainment venues across Melbourne. Whole seasons of shows are being shut down due to covid exposures or other consequences of the pandemic. Hesitant ticket holders are not booking as keenly as in previous years. We’re out of lockdown but certainly not out of the woods. Artists are still hurting and it’s impossible to know what to expect.
Despite this, the audience turnout for the opening night of Empathy Training at La Mama theatre seemed good. Each row was filled. The mood was upbeat. And Empathy Training gave a classic comedy play vibe - an ensemble cast playing a bunch of mismatched delinquents, made to confront their crimes and be taught empathy. Sounded like a hoot.
From the play’s opening, the lighting and sound design of the show were minimal - a circle of chairs on stage in a warm wash. Simple but effective. It emulated the typical, blunt exposure of HR mandated training that puts participants under the microscope of scrutiny.
This simplicity carried into the show, as characters revealed themselves. Peter Hatherley played Winston, a right-wing politician that is well-practised in nepotism and spending taxpayer money on his own pleasures. Julie Arnold portrayed Cynthia who, like Winston, is older than the other group members and has also climbed her way to the top of her field, but through the callous exploitation of overseas workers. The two bond immediately, connecting in their disdain for the setting and their facilitator.
Davita van der Velde played Sarah, the facilitator and councillor leading the training, whose own deep flaws are also revealed to the group as she struggles to maintain order and get through to the participants.
Then we have the younger generation. Alex Thomson plays Tucker, a filthy mouthed AFL player that was brought to Empathy Training because he is accused of sexually assaulting a woman, and consequently posted abuse about her online. Although as far as Tucker is aware, he is only brought there ‘by taxi’. He gets along great with Maddysyn (played by Emma Snow) , a vlogging, OMGing influencer that sells medical milkshakes and other such cosmetic and wellbeing shams on social media for profit.
I mentioned the effectiveness of simplicity earlier, so I imagine Brendan Black and Martin Chellew strived to emulate this in their direction and writing of the show, because to put it bluntly, the cast were simply directed to be stereotypes.
Their surface level labels - the bimbo influencer, the cynical, lonely business woman that will burn everyone to get ahead, the conservative, heartless old white male politician and the dumbass sexist footy player were on full display. But did this change at any point?
At times it felt as if deeper reflection, a bit of critical evaluation into the psychology of these characters and their actions might occur. My favourite moment was when the group made some progress with this whilst examining Winston’s reasoning behind his nepotism in a group exercise. It is the most thought-out and even-handed examination of one of the group members’ wrongdoing in the play, that isn’t constantly interrupted by jokes perpetuating trite character tropes. It was clear that Winston was the most developed character of the piece, which left the audience wanting more.
Of course, thoughtful examinations aren’t always a requirement of a comedy show. Maybe the intention was simply to revel in the dark humour of how flawed and unchanging human beings can be. However this approach contradicts the thoughtfulness Empathy Training encourages of its audience.
Why put these characters under the microscope just to keep them at the surface?
Why write a play that explores ‘how often we don’t know all the facts about an issue before we form an opinion on it’ (taken from creator’s note), whilst also not providing audiences or the cast with the opportunity to actually discuss the very serious issues the play itself puts forward, such as sexual assault, toxic masculinity, sexism in the careers of generations of women, policial corruption and homophobia?
Fleeting moments of empathy occurred around the midpoint of the play, when we saw the ensemble begin to shine, bouncing off each other as they all finally found a commonality to bond over- a tv show they all enjoy. But this interaction of actual communication and connection doesn’t occur again, with the group apparently forgetting all about it as they continue to turn on each other and the facilitator throughout the rest of the show.
As the exercises of the empathy training attempt to explore the psychology of the characters, no real empathy is attributed to the characters in the writing, as jokes about either their unrelenting self-assurance or stupidity are instead deposited in for a few audience laughs. But why are we supposed to be laughing at this?
Whilst Cynthia and Winston may provide a bit of hope to audiences through their ending in the play, this is seriously undercut by the frankly offensive endings of Tucker and Maddysyn, who have apparently learnt nothing and are happy to still turn on the other participants as they leave the training.
Maddysn: I’ll suck your cock if you buy 100 of my shakes?
Tucker: I’m not THAT dumb.
This is their un-ironic ending. And it may be trying to stress a point that ‘people are fucked’, as Cynthia so eloquently decides as she leaves the training, but is this truly what the creators were going for? The final moment of the play which plunged a distraught Sarah into the one, theatrically silent blackout of the show, once again pushed the audience to question what the directors were actually trying to say.
Because regardless of if your intention is to put on a harmless comedy play for the Comedy Festival, what we put on stage has to have meaning. It’s why everyone shows up.
Empathy Training’s left me wanting more for the characters and the cast. For them to be just the tiniest bit more relatable, understandable or even likeable. But unfortunately, a show encouraging examination lacked complexity. And empathy.
If you’re looking to simply laugh at young women painted as bimbos, footy players painted as meat heads, and older professionals as cynical tyrants go see Empathy Training.
But sometimes simple isn’t always effective.