Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Helicopter by Angela Betzien (Melbourne Theatre Company & Real TV)

“Childhood is the sleep of reason.” -- Rousseau

“The sleep of reason produces monsters.” -- Goya [Okay, he didn’t say it... it was the title of a painting.]


Helicopter -- mostly the script, but also the production -- set off my bullshit detectors early and often. From the get go, I suspected its motives and I suspected its methods. This isn’t just a matter of tone. MKA routinely mixes up lightness and seriousness without compromising either.

It’s a ‘straw man’ argument made 3D. And “the stuffed men” are a wealthy white family who singularly fail to cope with the pain they’ve caused their next-door neighbours, a family which has fled Uganda. Trouble is, the particular story Thomas tells about his flight from wild animals and warlords (on horseback and in helicopters) happened in Sudan.

I’m sure plenty of research was done, but I couldn’t help but feel the play was inspired less by the facts than by a viewing of A Constant Gardener. Kenya, Sudan, Uganda... hell. They’re all the same aren’t they? Well, no. Damn it.

And if Thomas had stopped to tell us one more parable about baby elephants in some generic Africa I reckon I would have puked.

Here’s my review of Helicopter. It was printed in Monday’s Australian and was on-line last Friday.

IT’S a terrible irony that the “long childhood” of our species originated in continental Africa where childhood in so many war-wracked countries is now so brutally short.

In theory, the delaying of maturity in humans allows for greater learning and socialisation, but in the West we’re taking immaturity to new extremes. Just like King Lear - chided by his fool: “Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise” - some of the most affluent manage to prolong childhood indefinitely, taking everything that’s theirs (and quite a bit that’s not) while taking responsibility for nothing.

Angela Betzien’s new play Helicopter - which ticks the topicality boxes faster than a donkey voter fills in a ballot paper - presents us with a truly contemptible family. They’re an unevolved and unenlightened lot. Head of the house is a bloke who works for a pharmaceutical company and lives on a diet of Xanax and horror films; his slacktivist wife’s idea of supporting the third world is buying a thousand dollar’s worth of soft toys for her infant daughter because a dollar per toy goes to UNICEF; their contemptibly pathetic teen son Jack recreationally tries anorexia.

They’re a “five star ANCAP safety rating” family where everyone inside the capsule is valuable and protected, and everyone outside can clog-up the tread pattern of the family’s all-terrain tyres. Which is, incidentally, how the contemptibles meet their Ugandan next door neighbour Thomas; they run over his pre-schooler niece in the BMW X5 all-terrain vehicle while backing out of the driveway.

Like well-drilled drivers who have carefully read their insurance policies, liability isn’t admitted and “sorry” isn’t said. And that's the one word that might placate Thomas and his distraught sister.

Unlike the X5, this play gets little power or weight to the road. It’s fluffy and fun, apparently ashamed of its serious themes and unashamed of its icky essentialist stereotyping. Thomas (Terry Yeboah) tells long-winded parables about monkeys and baby elephants, the unnamed wife (Daniela Farinacci) describes feeling “colonised” by her fetus and does capoeira blithely unaware that it came to Brazil with the African slaves, husband (Paul Denny at his most endearing and goofy) expresses his total ignorance of Joseph Kony, and son Jack (Charles Grounds) moans about being treated like a child while fiercely avoiding any act that might rate as grown-up.

One couldn’t ask for a more professional (or more delightful) squad of actors than Denny, Farinacci, Yeboah and Grounds. They’re like a team of competition cocktail waiters twirling and juggling brightly coloured bottles before our eyes. Regrettably, what they are serving up is sickly sweet and insubstantial.

Helicopter by Angela Betzien. Directed by Leticia Cáceres. Set and costume designer by Tanja Beer. Lighting design by Lisa Mibus. Music and sound design by Pete Goodwin of The Sweats. Presented by Melbourne Theatre Company and RealTV. Lawler Studio. August 2. Season ends August 17.

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