Review by Thomas Gregory
I walked out of Jane Bodie’s Music unsure how to best explain what I had experienced. On one hand I wanted to rail against the playwright, how careless they were with their offering, and how tired I am of meta-theatre in general. On the other hand, I wanted to praise Talking Candle Productions for their creativity, passion, and understanding of what makes live theatre truly special.
Music is the tale of Adam, a man who has struggled with an undisclosed mental illness for over a decade. He is tricked into allowing into his home an actor willing to use and abuse anyone in the name of inspiration. The actor, Gavin, is narcissistic, insecure, and immensely unlikeable, but Adam is happy to have company of any sort. Then Gavin introduces him to Sarah, a fellow actor with her own unique problems, who quickly attaches herself to the man. He becomes enamoured while she is happy to just spend time with someone who isn’t in the theatrical community.
When the play first opened in Sydney in 2014, Bodie told the Sydney Morning Herald,
“"I always wanted to write something - not about my brother, that would be exploitative - but about mental illness, because I had seen it badly represented on stage."
The problem is that while Bodie has represented what it can be like for someone with mental illness, what she has said about the problem is….well…nothing. The play within the play is, according to the lines, “about being judged because you are different.” Music, however, never seems to discuss this theme at all.
There is no statement made about what it is like to live with mental illness, how to support those who suffer from it, or how those with it are judged by others. Instead, Bodie offers up a piece of meta-theatre and a minor subversion that doesn’t pay off.
Jane Bodie tries to convince us that “this is a play of the play” for most of the night, and it is hard to believe that it doesn't suggest “this tale of mental illness doesn’t matter because it isn’t real”. Narrative breadcrumbs, like financial failures and missing music, are tossed aside. Moments of tension created by subverting the expectations of violence are quickly dispersed with almost farcical ease. And still, nothing appears to matter (not even the fact that it doesn’t).
Despite the wholly problematic script, the creatives behind Melbourne’s first performance of Music have put on something quite impressive. Between moments of brilliant acting, an unforgettable set design, and some clever directorial changes from the original Sydney production, I truly believe this is the best version of Music an audience could see.
Even as you are seated you can already tell so much about where the play will take us. The quietly depressed Adam is watching television inside his one-bedroom unit, which is messy though not squalid. His collection of music sits in the corner, a pile of bills on a nearby seat, and the garbage needs taking out. The milk sitting on the shelf of the kitchenette upstage may be spoiled, but it is still in a carton. As the play progresses, subtle changes are made, the sorts of changes you would expect the owner would make over time.
For the audience, this main room of the unit is quite literally framed by metal pipes, outlining the edges of the room and the single large window that offers natural light. This same window can just as easily be interpreted as a television screen, with us watching the show unfold from comfortably outside the conflict. Just as Bodie’s script never lets us forget the meta-theatre we are watching, the set designer has enhanced the importance of remembering “this isn’t real”.
The lighting design is just as impressive as the set. The overhead bar in the kitchen illuminates faces while they cook, while wild changes in lighting during scene transitions prepare us for upcoming changes in tone.
Four strong performers grace the stage for this production, and the directorial choice to give Ben Smalley’s Adam proper agency certainly improved the script. Smalley treats the character with respect, presenting us with a descent into psychoses that was both terrifying and believable. Marniesa Martinez offered up honest vulnerability in their portrayal of Sarah, leaving real tears on stage, and coaxing more from the audience.
Perhaps it is a result of the pandemic, and rehearsals filled with face masks, but performances in Melbourne currently have a problem with actors not yet willing to give their all in voice and physicality. At times voices were too soft for the audience, while moments of anger, jealousy or violence appeared muted even in action.
The play, unsurprisingly, comes with an incredible soundtrack, including eighties classics, Australian ballads, and haunting choral pieces. The sound design lets the music wash over the audience like the tides, and its absence is felt as much as its presence.
Would I recommend seeing Jane Bodie’s “Music”? Not really. But if you are certain that it is a play you want to watch at least once, then this is definitely the production you want to experience.