Going Down (STC) – theatre review

Going Down by Michelle Lee is a new Australian play. Last year, the Griffin Theatre presented her play, Rice.

Natalie Yang (Catherine Davies), a Chinese-Australian, has written her first book, “Banana Girl”, a no-holds-barred sex memoir. No-one is really interested. On the other hand Lu Lu Jayadi (Jenny Wu), an Muslim-Australian from Indonesia, has written a new book that garners the Miles Franklin Award – “(she) writes beautifully about her mother, her culture, Indonesia”.

Natalie is defiant in her rejection, and is scathing of the writing of Lu Lu Jayadi. She plans her next book: “100 Cocks in 100 Nights”. This will be an authentic story of an Asian-Australian woman. The book will not bend to the sentimental ethnographic demands of the wider Australian reading public. There is, though, a slow descent into self-doubt that lacerates her confidence and encourages her to act even more crazily with her sex life – which we get to witness! Even her close friends (Paul Blenheim, Josh Price, Naomi Rukavina), in her hip-Melbourne neighbourhood express their doubts about launching into this project. We watch a breakdown delivered in comic situations with comic characterisations that end in pseudo-melodramatic conclusions. Her only support comes, surprisingly, from her perceived rival, Lu Lu. She applauds the courage of the “Banana Girl” book and offers to assist her with introductions to the right connections.

In an exhausted state, Natalie, connects with her mother (Jenny Wu). She finds some solace in her mother’s family story. This knowledge of her family’s history has her connect to her heritage, a part of her story that she has vehemently avoided. And in it she finds a literary voice that speaks with a conviction that the other book lacked. Was it a rage at the world she lived in that coloured and hampered her ability to succeed in the profession she wanted? Natalie discovers you must write what you know, from all that you know.

An ironic moment arrives when Natalie and Lu Lu talk about their writing and their – eventual – success. The successful Lu Lu confesses she has avoided part of her history in her writing. Not only is she Muslim-Australian of Indonesian descent, but also gay – of which she has never written. Will she ever have the courage to one day write of all she knows?

Serious subject matter is examined here and when Going Down grapples with that, the play begins to find ballast. That permits an audience to consider, with a little more acumen, what they have been watching: What do people want from an Australian-Asian woman writer?

Ms Lee, determinedly, sets out to write a physical comedy to sweeten the ‘medicine’ of her real issue. Her humour however unfortunately mostly relies on paper-thin character and sketch comedy to gather laughs. A running gag structure becomes tiring in its efforts. There’s no escaping that feeling, no matter how much frenetic energy Ms Davies invests in her performance or the inventions that director Leticia Caceres creates with her.

The design is comic book bright by The Sisters Hayes. Lighting is by Sian James-Holland. And The Sweats provide a bouncing score. The references to the Melbourne scene may score familiarly more laughter down there than up here in Sydney, even though the place and types are not unknown.

Ms Davies in an interview in the Sydney Morning Herald (Jenny Valentish – 24 March) with Ms Lee, concludes: “My preference will always be with new work but it must not be treated as disposable. We want to create the Australian canon.”

One does ponder whether Going Down, despite its powerful personal politics will be like the “Banana Girl” novel of the play, a disposable cultural offer; or a defining contribution towards the evolution on Asian-Australian play-writing canon.

Going Down is running till 5 May 2018 at the Wharf 2 Theatre in Sydney.

Kevin Jackson
For more of Kevin Jackson’s theatre reviews, check out his blog at Kevin Jackson’s Theatre Diary

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