I’d heard a lot of good things about prolific theatre group Forty Forty Home, which unfortunately may have raised my expectations to unfair levels going into We Are Doing Well, their Melbourne Fringe Festival production. A production heavily relying on preconceived signs and signifiers, a sympathy towards the glitch aesthetic and an assumption of collective left wing groupthink meant that the production, while not bad, didn’t leave itself to actually say anything despite its myriad of intentions.
We Are Doing Well starts with Mel, your typical current affairs, Naomi Robson-esque newsreader having a meltdown on air. Horrified and embarrassed, she flees the studio only to come across a room that she’d never noticed before, inhabited by Jen, an ambiguous figure from television’s past, and a beach ball called Helvetica. Both are soaking up the rays of a videotaped tropical island paradise.
Jen invites Mel to stay, brings the beach ball and an apricot Danish to life, and all try to explore the nature of modern news reporting. Ideas about regret surface, the impact of lies. Part of the problem however, was that I knew what the subtext was going to be because I read the program. The actual execution of said subtext wore itself a bit thin on the ground, turning the actual play into a bit of a one note song, its padding out with the use of surrealism only effective to a point.
The surrealism was a big sticking point for me, especially since the presence of a newsreader, filled with regret at misreporting a story of neglect, has a tremendous amount of weight to it. You don’t write a play with a character, or more aptly, a symbol like that without doing something with it. Mel, however, spends most of the play in an ineloquent freeze-frame, only articulating the aforementioned feelings of shame and regret in the final moments in the piece. This leaves the audience wondering what her unarticulated angst means for most of the play, although it seems we’re supposed to know the source, that ‘current affairs newsreader’ automatically signifies ‘bottom feeding story fabricator’. Yes, that is true, that is what the majority of the people in the room probably did see in Mel’s character, but you either wanted that thought expressed in the text or, if a mutual assumption has already been made about them, an extension of the thought beyond that. Neither was achieved. Instead, when any headway was made, a segue to the beach ball coming to life or a surf rock dance would happen instead, manufactured whimsy which is often hard to nail.
The video projection, reminiscent of the website Everything is Terrible, had a homemade twinge to it. The vision stuttered, the sound pitched; a reminder that this island paradise is not real, is impermanent. Then there is the content, the newsreader and the morning show host. Their main conflict is guilt, the narcissistic realisation that one’s life has been created out of lies, that the other’s has been created out of a dissatisfaction with their chosen career. The job has become boring. I feel like I’m lying to my kids. I am unhappy. The only solution is to escape into a fabricated world. But even there you are not safe.
All these ideas have resonance, but without the emotional attachment to the characters, it’s hard to bring yourself to care whether they leave the room or not (another big sticking point, Mel continues to complain that she wants to leave, but doesn’t, even though there is nothing stopping her, physically or emotionally). I wanted more from this production than what it gave its audience, and I think Forty Forty Home are capable of a lot more.
Written by Ella McDonald and Erin Kelly
Directed by Anne-Louise Sarks
Melbourne Fringe Festival, September 22 – October 10