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a soft hurtfulness, a kind of beauty

douglas leonard: thom pain (based on nothing)


Jason Klarwein, Thom Pain (based on nothing), Queensland Theatre Company Jason Klarwein, Thom Pain (based on nothing), Queensland Theatre Company
photo Rob Maccoll
SO FAR THIS YEAR IN BRISBANE TWO PERFORMANCES STAND OUT FOR THEIR ABILITY TO TRACK THE TWISTS AND TURNS CONTEMPORARY ANOMIE HAS TAKEN WHILE AT THE SAME TIME SHOCKING US INTO A PROFOUND REALISATION OF OUR OWN ISOLATION AS INDIVIDUALS. INSTEAD OF ASKING US TO GET INVOLVED, JOIN A RECOVERY GROUP OR ASK OUR DOCTOR FOR A PRESCRIPTION FOR PROZAC, THESE WORKS SEVERELY TESTED THE METTLE OF THEIR AUDIENCES AS THEY PRESENTED INVIGORATINGLY DIFFERENT (AND DESPAIRINGLY SIMILAR) VERSIONS OF THE GROUND ZERO OF THE HUMAN CONDITION.

The first of these was the homegrown product, Brian Lucas’ Performance Anxiety (RT96), a whirling dervish of performance cabaret which stands authoritatively alongside, and bears comparison with, American playwright Will Eno’s monologue titled Thom Pain (based on nothing), directed by John Halpin and performed by Jason Klarwein for the Queensland Theatre Company, and which has been described as “stand up existentialism.”

If both productions are dominated by the en-soi—in Sartrean existential terms the world experienced as alien and senselessly contingent dominated—they also cast a penumbral light on the dialectically opposing notion of the pour-soi, the individual self who challenges the givens of both social and personal history from a position deemed to be inalienably and ineluctably free. Both performances hinged on this quixotic quest for self-identity, so it is no wonder that a forthcoming project of Eno’s is an adaptation of the classical treatment of the subject, Ibsen’s Peer Gynt.Nor is it surprising that Lucas is currently directing Ionesco’s absurdist drama, The Chairs, for La Boite Theatre in Brisbane. In an evident revival of tradition, both seem to have learned from Beckett’s use of even the most miniscule silence to offset their words, and are well versed in Pinter’s throwaway sleight of hand.

Eno is a funny writer in the sense that Pinter wrote to The Sunday Times in 1960: “As far as I’m concerned The Caretaker is funny up to a point. Beyond that point it ceases to be funny, and it was because of that point that I wrote it.” Eno in an interview with QTC, revealing the level of his own subtle sleight of hand, writes, “The play’s title reminds me, of course, of Thomas Paine (famous for his Revolutionary War pamphlets with the words “the summer soldier and the sunshine patriot”), but it also somehow reminds me of a broken arm, both soft and hurtful, recognisable, but somehow wrong.” Behind the wounded and apparently character-armoured and conformist representation of Eno’s anti-hero, who wears a plain dark suit and tie and sports black horn-rimmed glasses, stands an authentic revolutionary hero, the existential pour-soi. If Thomas Paine the pamphleteer is feebly recapitulated in Thom Pain’s solipsistic maunderings, and Thom’s feints to rhetorically engage with the audience are succeeded by an almost instantaneous withdrawal from the fray, there is indeed a soft hurtfulness, a recognisable wrongness which is manifestly our own mirrored in his actions.
Jason Klarwein, Thom Pain (based on nothing), Queensland Theatre Company Jason Klarwein, Thom Pain (based on nothing), Queensland Theatre Company
Although he adopts the stance of being perpetually, paranoidly en garde, it seems useless to attempt to psychoanalise a character who is such a writerly, theatrical confection. Only towards the end, when the defensive precision of language breaks down into a painful, repetitively fragmented stream of consciousness does he let his guard down and invite our sympathy in the usual sense. This is the point at which he flies away, disappears back into the realm of his author’s imagination while leaving behind the concrete presence of the hapless other, his mirrored substitute—the member of the audience he has cajoled onstage to assist in an act of magic which has failed to ensue, unless by Catholic transubstantiation. His last line as he exits is the puckishly ironic: “Isn’t it great to be alive?”

The strength of the production lies in Eno’s Wildean language which incorporates such pithy observations about the end of a love affair as “I disappeared in her and she, wondering where I went, left.” Such ironic lucidity is equally applied to the nicely established loneliness of childhood (Thom doesn’t mention his parents) in an anecdote about the accidental electrocution of his pet dog. The most verbally actualised and traumatic scenario describes the boy’s misapprehension when he is attacked by bees: “Kind of beautiful, if you like that sort of thing. If you like the idea of a little boy desperately spreading stinging bees over his bleeding body. Desperately yelling, ‘Help me, bees, Help,’ and putting his little swollen hand into the hive for more.”

Thom’s recounting of his life turns on such incidents in a Yeatsian gyre rather than any straightforward narrative. A writer like Eno, as Martin Esslin said about Beckett, is essentially lyrical, concerned with such basic questions as “Who am I?” Both Eno and Lucas have returned to the problems enunciated by the great 20th-century poet Rilke in The Notes of Laurid Brigge: “And so we walk around, a mockery and a mere half: neither having achieved being, nor actors.” John Halpin and Jason Klarwein made an intelligent and sensitive team elucidating the philosophical premises, and at the same time urging each of us to become the good person whom Eno was trying to be when he wrote the piece.


Queensland Theatre Company, Thom Pain (based on nothing), writer Will Eno, director Jon Halpin, performer Jason Klarwein, composer Phil Slade, lighting designer Jason Glenwright, design consultant Josh McIntosh; Billie Brown Studio, Brisbane, March 15-April 10

RealTime issue #97 June-July 2010 pg. 32

© Douglas Leonard; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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