At eighteen years old, and weighing over 400 kilograms, Arthur (Arty) is the world’s heaviest teenager. With his gastric bypass surgery scheduled for 259 days’ time, he is assigned a Pathways to Work officer and put on a strict diet, while his every move is followed by a ravenous reality TV crew from a show called ‘Shocking Fat Stories.’ This is the world of Melissa Bubnic’s 2010 Patrick White Playwrights’ Award-winning play, Beached.
Directed by Shannon Murphy, Bubnic’s play is an unapologetically satiric and pointed look at the obesity epidemic, and tries to unpick “society’s insatiable appetite for human misery.” Murphy’s direction is bold and ambitious, her staging audacious and inventive, as she (ingeniously) shows us the artifice behind the ‘reality’ of reality television. In a set constructed like a television studio, two patterned walls create a corner in which Arty sits, while cameras, lights, backdrops and costumes hang from the rungs of a cage-like scaffold which moves around him, encasing and restricting his movement and freedom.
It’s a strong production – from the set and costumes (James Browne) to the lights, sound and live videos (Verity Hampson and Steve Toulmin, respectively) played on either side of
corner stage. The cast, too, are consistently strong, from Arka Das’ Producer (who literally calls the shots),
to Gia Carides’ mother, Blake Davis’ Arty, and Kate Mulvany’s Louise. As the
various ‘talking heads’ that the script requires – everything from bypass
surgeon, to academics, social commentators and previous bypass patients – Carides,
Mulvany, and Das are ever bit as credible as they should be, and the fact that
we see them changing costumes, rearranging the next backdrop, framing the shot
only heightens Murphy’s intention of exposing the artifice behind the
‘reality.’ If there were any minor quibbles about the performances, it would be
that Arty perhaps plays a few too many of his lines for laughs, that the mother
is perhaps too dependent on her son’s immovability, that the Producer is too
stereotypically ‘bad.’ The Producer in many ways is the great enabler of the
whole show – without him, we would not have a play. But perhaps by underplaying
the villainy inherent in the role, there could have been a greater truth –
that, like, Louise, he too is just doing a job; like the surgeon, his
livelihood depends on people like Arty’s misfortune. In a similar vein to the
Producer, Louise is also an enabler in Bubnic’s play – after all, it is she who
awakens Arty to the possibilities of life after surgery, of what lies outside
the walls of his house. As played by Kate Mulvany, Louise the case-worker is
focused and goal-oriented, but as herself, she is perhaps every bit as
vulnerable and defenseless as Arty is. Her professionalism is in conflict with
her emotional vulnerability, and in some of the play’s more poignant and
romantic moments, we get a glimpse of a tender and heartbreaking portrait of
someone who has put themselves on the line to help someone else. And Mulvany,
as much as Louise, shines, imperceptibly drawing the light from the others. Griffin
As in any piece of reality television, Steve Toulmin’s music is every bit as saccharine and in-your-face dramatic as it should be; it pushes all the right buttons and quite involuntarily, you find yourself overcome by your automatic emotional response, despite your conscience screaming at you that you’re being manipulated. Verity Hampson’s lighting is dramatic, effective, and at times, quite austere – her clever simulation of an operating theatre is enviously simple.
For a production that relies heavily on the tropes and mannerisms of reality television, its believability and sincerity is astoundingly genuine. Bubnic’s script is fast, clever, smart and darkly funny – you keep catching yourself laughing at times, even though you know you shouldn’t be. In the astute hands of Shannon Murphy, Beached is a scathing examination of one of the more indulgent and polarizing epidemics afflicting our society, and is a humanizing portrait of the man (literally) underneath the fat.
Theatre playlist: 21. Fat, ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic