Whether we like to admit it or not, our lives, knowledge, and perceptions of others are shaped by the omnipresent media. It may come from the parental eye of the television screen, or the broad-sheeted authority of a splayed newspaper, or even second-hand gossip. Whatever the medium, we are always tuned in. But what if you fell under the media’s glaring eye? How could you fend off such a pervasive monster? In Robert Reid’s latest play, On the Production of Monsters
, we watch what happens when you end up on the wrong side of a ravenous media mob.
Placed in the firing line of headlines are two typical Melburnians we all should recognise. Ben and Shari, dressed in flannel and vintage dress respectively, lounge over lattes and play ‘Spot the Hipster’. Between outbursts about their coffee such as, “the grounds are burnt, that’s why it’s bitter!” and quips about vegans crocheting scarves while wearing them, the scenesters are set.
But the couple’s bubble badly bursts (without a hint of irony) when Ben finds himself in the centre of a nation-wide child pornography scandal following an innocent interview with a local paper. Inspired by the media frenzy surrounding art photographer Bill Henson in 2008, the characters find themselves facing a pitchfork-wielding nation that lynches first, and might ask questions later.
Flanked on each side by the audience, director Clare Watson handles the staging masterfully so that it is easy to forget the actors are performing to the opposite side as well. Set designer Andrew Bailey’s creative thought behind the use of props is outstanding. Beginning with a bare stage, as the story unfolds, the scenery is arranged with it. The actors quickly assemble a café table and chairs from a trapdoor, a bean bag plops from the ceiling with a thump, and toast ejects itself out of the floor.
Over 85 minutes, the two actors (Virginia Gay and James Saunders) play nine characters between them. Although the players slip easily in and out of their changing roles, you wonder why Reid thought it necessary to include so many secondary characters. With the exception of the incisive public relations consultant, the buzzing of multiple voices only seems to add a distracting white noise to the real story of Ben and Shari.
The first half of the play is entertaining, consisting of witty banter and pleasing Melbourne-isms, but is without any real drama. We are properly hooked when the scandal finally hits in the second half of the play, but then the show ends suddenly at the height of our intrigue. It feels like Reid is onto a real story, but unfortunately his placement of ‘beginning’ and ‘end’ feels unsatisfying. The unnecessary scenes and faces add vagueness to the theme, and give the impression of a story being told on the periphery.
Reid’s latest production has identified a powerful, fickle beast that we feed thoughtlessly, however the play fails to face its monsters head on, rather skirting around the shadows.