‘The Big Bruise’: Jonathan Dunk examines Montague Basement

Montague Basement’s current production, The Big Bruise, is playing at 107 Redfern Projects until the 16th of April.

MBMontague Basement are one of the legion of indie theatre rigs to spawn in the moist catacombs of Sydney University Dramatic Society, unlike most, however, they’ve endured beyond a couple of shows, and rarer still, their work is consistently interesting. Founded and run by Imogen Gardam and Saro Lusty-Cavallari, the company launched with a shoestring production of Procne & Tereus for the Sydney Fringe Festival in 2014, which I was fortunate enough to see.

The genre of classical myth refracted through ashtray-realism is familiar to Australian audiences from the work of Adena Jacobs and Simon Stone. Stone’s 2012 production of Thyestes reinvented the tragic form to achieve something rare enough on any stage; the genuine shock of the new. The form and structure of Procne bore deep prints of Stone’s influence, a detailed portrait of domestic experience subtly rendered by Lulu Howes as Procne and Christian Byers as Tereus accelerated into a nightmarish, and properly tragic, conclusion.

The form is a composite of critical and poetic parts. The mechanisms of tragic structure foregrounded by the titles loom over the dramatis personae like a scythe, but the seductive textures of bourgeois experience lull the audience into complacent quotidian hopes. When it comes the descent of the blade is both inevitable and particular: the protagonists work their own fates, but their cruelties are pitiable. Stone inflects the temporal of the form towards universalizing aesthetcisms, the general assertion that “they do exist, though, those people” as Mark Winter’s Atreus chillingly observed in Thyestes. The writer and director of Procne, and its answering 2015 production All About Medea, Saro Lusty-Cavallari, is more interested in the form’s dialectic and political potentials. Behind his vision’s pathetically hapless and brutally self-involved men lurk the sinister thought-structures of patriarchal capitalism. This critique was particularly salient in Medea, where a montage of saccharine romcom tropes offset a campaign of insidious micro-aggression precipitating the play’s bloody denouement.

Sam Brewer in The Big Bruise. Image Omnes Photography.
Sam Brewer in The Big Bruise. Image Omnes Photography.

2016 will see Montague Basemement’s most ambitious season, which at eight productions constitutes an impressive feat for an unfunded collective. Kaleidoscope written by Charles O’Grady, co-directed by O’Grady and Finn Davis, lyrically and comically evoked the realities of trans experience when it played in February at the Kings Cross Hotel. A recursive, poetic monologue, Kaleidoscope nimbly dissected the tragedy-porn clichés of pop-culture trans representation, and proffered in their stead an empathetic navigation of the vicissitudes of identity.

Continuing in a spirit of intelligent provocation, the collective’s current production The Big Bruise deftly ironizes the social mythologies that occlude the persisting stigma of suicide. Lusty-Cavallari’s work here as writer/director is wry and light of touch. The mise en abyme of depressive ideation is authentically and compellingly rendered, but never indulged. The bare bodkin’s allure is staged and considered through an agile pastiche of forms and perspectives. A drawling impressionist bath-soliloquy gives way to a frenetic picaresque depicting the absurdities of footstool-corporate life as a depressive. This, in turn, makes way for an inspired Chaplinesque pantomime in which the will to live is ambushed and trammelled by the cavalcade of daily ritual.

Throughout this medley the lone performer Sam Brewer is never less than compelling. He handles fluid lyricism, dryly humorous narrative, and physical comedy deftly. Brewer’s charisma and comic timing poignantly subvert the litany of patronizing clichés with which culture narcotizes itself to the threat of suicide. And suicide is a threat; whether as an accomplished act or merely a desire.

Sam Brewer in The Big Bruise. Image Omnes Photography.
Sam Brewer in The Big Bruise. Image Omnes Photography.

Suicide, bastardized Latin through French, denotes self-cut and self-kill etymologically speaking. In a fairly perfect irony the second sense of the root cide figures both cutting and cutter. A suicide suicides. Hume’s posthumous essay on the subject brutally, and rather cheerfully, debunks the arguments that suicide constitutes a crime against either self or society or God. “So great is our horror of death”, he writes, “that when it presents itself under any form, besides that to which a man has endeavored to reconcile his imagination, it acquires new terrors, and overcomes his feeble courage”. Hume posits suicide as an assertion and availing of liberty, a final human agency. Thus the criminalizing and pathologizing arguments against self-slaughter emerge as little more than cowardice draped in tremulous pieties.

The Big Bruise adapts and extends Hume’s argument to the comparatively impoverished, but prettier and more insidious containment techniques of late capitalism. In one segment of the play Brewer answers a barrage of precorded questions from the flux of popculture with the same desire. In another Artaudian chapter he manically stumbles in circles around a dark stage striated by fluorescence as a pseudo-authoritative voice-over recites a staccato litany of gruesome failed suicide statistics. The pathos is visceral, as a bombardment of social discourse both prompts the subject towards, and restrains it from, an profitable death. Lusty-Cavallari skewers this hypocrisy in the program notes: Our culture wallows in the destruction of human bodies, we fetishise it every day and yet the urge to curtail our own existence is “sick”.

The production does not, however, romanticize misery or desperate acts. Like Hume, it posits suicide as a legitimate response to absurd conditions. But these conditions are observed with a resonant and feeling melancholy. The comically rapid progression through tropes and genres accrues a surprising and heart-warming dignity as its truest theme emerges. The sequential representations of the attempt to die form a compelling representation of the attempt to live. Finally, suicide figures as a decision both impelled and opposed by the human desire for happiness, and in the irony of that tragicomic paradox, a problem for the individual to resolve as they can, without judgment.

 – Jonathan Dunk


Jonathan Dunk is a PhD candidate at the University of Sydney, where he teaches Australian Literature. His work has been published in The Australian Book Review, Southerly, and Cordite, and shortlisted for the 2015 Overland Victoria Short-story prize.

For further information on Montague Basement go to  http://www.montaguebasement.com/

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