Theatre

Despite some shaky moments, Benjamin Law’s Torch the Place is filled with humour and heart, and breathes new life into the Australian tradition of naturalism. By Alison Croggon.

Torch the Place

Charles Wu, Michelle Lim Davidson and Fiona Choi in Torch the Place.
Credit: Jeff Busby

Most of us have a little bit of hoarder inside us. Even the least materialistic people can find themselves weighed down with the detritus of their lives. Things accumulate – a cupboard full of jars for that jam-making session that never happened, boxes of long-forgotten toys and bills from 1997, or tacky Christmas presents from distant relatives you felt too guilty to take to the op shop.

The cult of minimalism, as exemplified by domestic “organising consultant” Marie Kondo, grows out of the pressures of our endlessly consuming consumerism. According to the Los Angeles Times, the average United States household contains 300,000 items, which seems staggering even when you realise the tally includes paperclips. We all have so much stuff.

But often this stuff is more than just junk. We invest objects with memories and desires: they are mementos and histories, ghosts of childhood or old griefs or abortive ambitions (the jam dream). It’s not surprising, given the fragmenting nature of our existences, that compulsive hoarding has become one of the signal mental health crises of our age, sparking an entire genre of reality TV shows. Hanging on to things is a way of creating continuities in lives splintered by dislocation and trauma.

Benjamin Law’s debut play, Torch the Place, takes this idea and weaves it through a sitcom about an Asian–Australian family that’s not a million miles from the family in his successful autobiographical TV series, The Family Law. This production is the Melbourne Theatre Company’s contribution to the second iteration of Asia TOPA: Asia-Pacific Triennial of Performing Arts, and it makes for a brashly fun night in the theatre, albeit with a few wobbles.

The central character is Mum (Diana Lin). Recovering from a bout of cancer, she trails around a home crammed to the ceiling with the accumulated flotsam of family life. Her three adult children – Teresa (Fiona Choi), Natalie (Michelle Lim Davidson) and Toby (Charles Wu) – have converged on the house for her birthday and, with the laconic support of Teresa’s husband, Paul (Max Brown), they plan to clean it up.

I enjoyed Torch the Place a lot more than the MTC’s previous offering, another commercial comedy – Laura Wade’s Home, I’m Darling. Wade’s play arrived from London trailing plaudits and was given a glossy production directed by Sarah Goodes. Both Torch the Place and Home, I’m Darling are family dramas that trade in different ways on the darkness lurking behind nostalgia, and both play with the idea of cliché in their characterisations and plot.

Wade, with seven plays under her belt, is clearly the more experienced playwright, and she certainly demonstrates her stagecraft in Home, I’m Darling. Law, on the other hand, comes out of writing for television. There’s a big difference between writing for the small screen and the live stage and, in its less successful moments, Torch the Place betrays a lack of dramaturgical finesse.

However, in Wade’s play the clichés hollow out as the drama progresses until the action makes no emotional sense. In Torch the Place, there’s an underlying emotional fidelity that holds the work together.

Law’s TV experience isn’t necessarily a bad thing: Torch the Place lands squarely as old-fashioned Australian naturalism in the tradition of David Williamson and Joanna Murray-Smith, and this derives its tropes more from television than the theatre of Ibsen. Its success depends on the comedy of recognition and a flair for witty one-liners, and Torch the Place delivers both in spades.

But its crudity – and by this I don’t mean its profanity, which is as prominently louche as Law fans would expect – is also its strength. There’s a sense of groundedness and heart that gives ballast to characters that might otherwise remain cartoonish stereotypes.

And yes, it’s often laugh-out-loud funny. Law makes spirited mockery of all his characters – Instagram queen Natalie hashtagging cancer shots with her mum; Toby, the earnest, politically aware gay brother who is yet to come out to his family. And as the traumas hidden in the piles of objects begin to emerge, forcing this family to a reckoning with its unspoken past, there are moments that are genuinely moving.

It brings a spin to this tired form that feels fresh. I wondered about this afterwards, since plays like this usually leave me sitting in glum solitude while everyone around me splits their sides. I suspect that it’s because this kind of play – a comfort watch, if you will, with an upbeat trajectory – is a deeply conservative form. It usually reinforces a set of white, middle-class conventions about Australia, even if it’s pretending to challenge them. Williamson has probably been the most successful at this, and it’s a key reason why he has such a loyal – if rapidly ageing – audience.

Law is using the same form, for the same reasons – to give his audience the pleasurable recognition of seeing themselves on stage. But changing its focus gives it some necessary and surprising bite. It’s notable that Torch the Place is at its best when the naturalism breaks down. There are a couple of moments – a fantasy scene in which suddenly we’re in a game show, and a musical interlude – in which the trash aesthetic begins to vamp up towards something like the anarchic splendour of Declan Greene and Ash Flanders’ Sisters Grimm. I would have liked more of that excess, but then that would have been a different show.

On the other hand, because the issue-based naturalistic play has been one of the principal ways that Australian theatre has performed its identity over the past half-century, Law’s appropriation permits him to quietly upend some prevailing assumptions. This family is as Australian as they come. Paul is the very picture of slouching Australian masculinity – as Toby says, he “just can’t” with the “Mate. Maaaaate. Bro!” thing. But, as we discover, Toby’s family fled Vietnam.

Moreover, their childhood icons, serially unearthed from the tottering piles of boxes that comprise Isabel Hudson’s ingenious set, are instantly familiar to any Australian child of the 1990s – Disney films, including Mulan, of course, with a little paean to the power of representation, but also shows such as Hey Hey It’s Saturday. A major prop is a three-foot doll of Princess Diana. Whoever combed the marketplace for these items deserves a round of applause.

Here Asian histories are folded into Australian identities with the same weightlessness and (in)visibility given to Scottish, Irish or English heritage. There’s the same ordinariness, the same taken-for-granted presence, neither exoticised nor fetishised. The trauma that’s explored through the show isn’t, either, the simple image of immigrant suffering that has long been the acceptable face of “ethnic” culture in white Australia. It’s more complicated and individuated than that: the pain doesn’t emerge from ethnicity, but from life itself. For instance, the scarring absence in this family is Dad, whom we never see.

Dean Bryant’s production is graced with some excellent ensemble work from the cast. As Mum, Lin – who played Aunty Maisy in The Family Law, and the protagonist’s mother in Lulu Wang’s acclaimed film The Farewell – is the centre around which the whole cast spins, in turn vulnerable, neurotic, vicious and charming. All the actors bring complexities and realness to their roles, from Choi (another Family Law alumna) as the “responsible” daughter Teresa – which could be a thankless role in all senses – to Lim Davidson’s glamorous influencer Natalie, who is played with fine comic timing.

There are still roughnesses, which feel mostly dramaturgical – longueurs where scenes or speeches lose energy because they’re unprofitably repetitious or explanatory. The difficult emotional transition from sketch-style comic stereotype to deeper dramatic characterisations feels uncertain, although I couldn’t trace whether that was a problem in the production or the text. The main effect is stutters in the rhythms of the production, which almost create a couple of false endings, though it’s likely that some of these will settle as the season progresses into its run.

Certainly, the production could have done with the precision detailing that characterised Sarah Goodes’ Home, I’m Darling, which made a silk purse out of a pretty ordinary handbag. I didn’t quite believe the upbeat ending, much as I wanted to, because it didn’t feel to me like we quite got there. Perhaps the pain inside the comedy felt too real for any easy fix. But it’s certainly a fun ride.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 22, 2020 as "Law and hoarder".

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

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