And the word is good

Brisbane (a doing word) (Vena Cava Productions)

Judith Wright Centre, The Shopfront

March 20 – 22

It is perhaps fitting that in its 18th year, Vena Cava Productions has begun its season by spreading its wings and moving out of home to the Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts’ for their first 2014 mainstage production. And there is possibility no better space from which to share the story of “Brisbane (a doing word)” than the Judy’s gritty Shopfront. Intimate and full of character, the space allows for appreciation of the small details of staging and emphasises the nature of theatre as living art, punctuated by the sounds of the show’s namesake city shouting outside.

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Determined contemporary theatre-maker and standup comic Matty is always unhappy; he wants to be held in a regard he hasn’t yet earned and everything he does in drenched in effort. He is starting to believe what they say about his town. Like the eponymous Johnno of David Malouf’s seminal Brisbane story, he represents an essentially unlikeable character we will all have met at some stage in our lives. And he is played with glorious gusto by Patrick Hayes, who captures the contrasts of this indignant but vulnerable protagonist, torn between staying true to his artistic passion and heeding the advice of his peers. Through his psychologist-in-training boyfriend’s (Greg Mackenzie) suggestion of  therapy and his engineering roommate Lara’s (Lia Stark) pressure for him to get a real job and start paying his dues to society, “Brisbane (a doing word)” also provides interesting, universal insights to relationships and personal development, beyond the realm of its university student characters.

Much as this is Matty’s story, it is also a play about a city. “I am this town,” he proclaims. And the sense of place and environment are palpable throughout the piece, not just through mentions of QTC or the Paddo Tavern, or inclusion of obligatory Campbell Newman funding cut jabs, but by its characters’ questioning of Brisbane’s regard as a cultural wasteland. This is one of the show’s most appealing aspects as it explores the impact of this assumption on a personal and creative level and in doing so, confronts the audience with their own contemplation.

Language connects us not only to people but to place, in the sense of both time and location and writer David Burton captures this essence in the work. Although sometimes colourful in language, the show is often furiously funny, with scenes scaffolded by segments of Matty’s standup comedy (‘gross out comedy, that’s his thing’), but also brutally honest in its character analysis and pathos (as he emphatically admits to just wanting to be liked). From a script enigmatically described as being “simultaneously painfully demanding and excruciatingly vague”, director Clair Christian has brought Burton’s words to life in a way that is interesting (including through use of multimedia, hashtag montage clips and memorable music), intellectual (with references such as Virginia Woolf and Oscar Wilde) and very funny, as it captures the self-indulgent angst of a typical university experience with lines such as “whatever is popular is wrong”.

“Brisbane (a doing word)” is a show with plenty of truth, heart and humour.  And it is of much appeal as it simultaneously allows those at university to reflect on their reality, while indulging those who have been there and done that with the opportunity to reflect nostalgically on their days of Doc Martins and cask wine. It is not only a good play, but a necessary one for anyone who has ever been confused about whether they love or hate their city, or themselves. And it a superb showcase of the best of Brisbane student theatre and the passion of the theatremakers who make an invaluable contribution to the cultural life of our city.  If Brisbane is a doing word, then the word is good and the show deserves to be seen as evidence of all there is to celebrate and cherish within Brisbane’s theatre culture. By playing it too safe and not supporting productions such as this, there is a real possibility that we may destroy theatre’s many possible futures, before they are able to take flight.

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