Theatre

Though it never quite coheres, The Feather in the Web takes some sharp digs at contemporary society and is bolstered by an excellent cast. By Alison Croggon.

The Feather in the Web

The cast of The Feather in the Web at Red Stitch, featuring Michelle Brasier, Emily Milledge, Patrick Durnan Silva, Belinda McClory, George Lingard and Georgina Naidu.
Credit: Pier Carthew

Nick Coyle’s The Feather in the Web, now playing as part of the Midsumma Festival, is a fascinatingly frustrating experience. It’s billed as a “lacerating satire of mainstream culture”, and certainly there are parts with claws. But the whole feels like an unformed beast that has taken fright at itself and never quite become what it wants to be.

Despite this, Declan Greene’s production at Red Stitch is an interesting and thought-provoking ride. Its Melbourne premiere follows an acclaimed production by Ben Winspear at Sydney’s Griffin Theatre, where Greene is taking over as artistic director.

My first question when I walked out of The Feather in the Web was, well, what is it? And, to be honest, I’m still not entirely sure. Don’t get me wrong – being forced to this question is by no means a bad thing. Most often when I find myself dissatisfied with theatre, it’s because it’s depressingly clear from the opening scene that everyone concerned knows exactly what it is.

The Feather in the Web might be subtitled “The Adventures of Kimberly”. Kimberly is a kind of anti-character played with blank aggression by Michelle Brasier. We meet her in the first scene, when she breaks into a naturalistic dialogue between two women (Belinda McClory, playing a cancer survivor and presumably Kimberly’s mother, and Georgina Naidu) chatting over coffee and cake. Kimberly punches cake into one woman’s face and pours coffee over the other, and then announces she is heading to the mall and is never coming back.

In the next scene, she induces a hapless retail assistant (Patrick Durnan Silva) to expose himself and masturbate in public. Then she randomly turns up to an engagement party between Instagram couple Miles (George Lingard) and Lily (Emily Milledge), where she’s mistaken for the hired waiter. There she falls instantly and obsessively in love with Miles. The rest of the play is about her attempts to woo him away from Lily by shaping herself into the woman she believes he desires.

This summary makes The Feather in the Web sound rather more coherent than it is. Once the logic of Kimberly’s obsession with Miles kicks in, something like a narrative begins to emerge, but it remains relentlessly episodic. There is clearly something very wrong with Kimberly, who has no idea how to relate in any way to other people, but it’s weirdly without affect.

Her actions read like a metaphor for trauma, which among other things erases memory. In fact, no one in this play seems to have any memory at all: they are presented as malleable selves, shaped by the moments and social demands in which they find themselves. We never get to know what Kimberly’s trauma is – maybe there’s a hint in her mother’s cancer, although that’s never followed through. It’s mainly expressed as amoral cruelty, part of the troubling misanthropy that underlies the entire play and is, I suspect, its main weakness.

Kimberly mostly seems to be a catalyst for the satire that’s expressed through the secondary characters, who – shaped as they are by the hollowing pressures of late capitalist society – are as alienated and monstrous as Kimberly herself. There are some sharp digs at the contemporary workspace, the contemporary obsession with surfaces and metrics. Miles is a brand manager, and Lily does CrossFit in between vying for a promotion at her job. They have hashtags for their engagement, and encourage everyone to donate to their honeymoon crowdfunder.

There’s more than a germ of an idea in here, but somehow the realisation never quite lands. Coyle’s work – which includes a web series and a number of solo shows – has often been called “surreal”. It’s a word that does a lot of heavy lifting these days, mainly to mean “doesn’t make a lot of sense”; but to be fair, this play deserves the moniker a little more than most.

When the movement first began a century ago, Surrealism was about bringing into conscious play the deeper forces of the subconscious mind, unleashing irrational connections into language and art. Inspired by Freud’s new theories on the subconscious, André Breton and his acolytes aimed to bring a revolutionary consciousness to the fore, freed of what Breton called “interference” of the waking state, with its constricting moralities and sensibilities.

As a character, Kimberly seems to be a personification of the angry id, the untamed child of the psyche that’s driven by impulse and desire. She explodes into the conscious world, passively reflecting its emptiness and lack of connection. We watch her become enslaved by her obsession – I find myself hesitating to call it “love”; her stalkerish, manipulative, abject behaviour has nothing to do with love.

And then, when everything implodes and she decides she will never love again, Kimberly embraces the banal world she rejects so violently in the opening scene – a married life with kids, a job, an ordinary death. And… what? How this character is supposed to transcend to this suburban ordinariness is as inexplicable as everything else: there is nothing elsewhere to suggest she has the beginning of the capacities she needs to do this.

The implication is that these ordinary relationships require nothing, while Kimberly’s broken, cruel emptiness is something like a self, which she sacrifices when love gets too much. Or is it? The play is more than ambivalent on this and other questions: I suspect it doesn’t know what it thinks, and simply places a bet each way. As with the title – Kimberly, we learn, is the spider that weaves the web; Love Object Miles/Love is the feather – the metaphor just doesn’t hold.

Greene’s production throws everything at the text, and mostly avoids the dullness that threatens to emerge when it’s impossible to care about anyone on stage. Brynna Lowen’s set is an all-purpose domestic space that serves serially as a lounge room, a karaoke bar, an office and a hospital. There’s a screen backstage for projections that, with Clare Springett’s lighting and Tom Backhaus’s sound design, amp up the stage realities to psychotic when Kimberly appears.

It’s hard to imagine better performances, with a superb cast who bring all the resources they have. Milledge, for example, almost succeeds in creating emotional realness around the neurotic, oblivious Lily, who is otherwise, like everyone else in the play, a collection of behavioural tics. There are a few poetic monologues that reach beyond the satire to a glimpse of other possibilities, but they remain only glimpses. The play’s later turn to seriousness is simply unbelievable, even on its own terms.

I think what’s really wrong with The Feather in the Web is that it’s built on very shallow foundations – not only of thought but also of feeling. In a program note for the Griffin season, Coyle wrote: “Without giving [Kimberly] an adversary this play would just be a series of psychopathic vignettes, and Kimberly needed a mighty opponent: Love.”

If I could believe for a second that Kimberly actually loved Miles, the anarchy surrounding her might become plausible. As it is, it just evolves as a rather deadening picture of misogyny that verges on misogyny itself. In fact, all the relationships in this play are devoid of love, or even desire – aside from Kimberly’s obsession, there is the self-absorbed self-satisfaction of Miles and Lily, the empty work friendships, and so on. So psychopathic vignettes are what you end up with: there’s no counterpoint.

The Feather in the Web is primed to be a grenade thrown at mainstream culture, but it merely scatters a bunch of glitter before it sputters out. It made me think of that expert bomb thrower Joe Orton, whose menacing characters strike far more deeply into the imagination. He claimed his characters, however extreme they seemed to the audiences of his time, were “perfectly recognisable”. “People think I write fantasy,” he said. “But I don’t.”

Orton was an impeccable stylist, always careful to never let his work slide into mannerist tics. “To be destructive, words must be irrefutable,” he wrote once. “Print was less effective than the spoken word because the blast was greater; eyes could ignore, slide past, dangerous verbs and nouns. But if you could lock the enemy into a room somewhere and fire the sentence at them you could get a sort of seismic disturbance.”

There’s enough spark in The Feather in the Web to believe that this kind of effect isn’t beyond Coyle. If he could find those irrefutable words, I suspect there’d be no stopping him.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 8, 2020 as "Scuffled feathers".

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Alison Croggon is an award-winning novelist, poet, playwright and critic.