Photos: Stephen Henry

The Norman Mailer Anecdote (Big Scary Animal) – theatre review

The world premiere of The Norman Mailer Anecdote by Big Scary Animal was an exciting night of firsts. It was the first production of the inaugural DOOR 3 program by Queensland Theatre, the first play written by screenwriter Anthony Mullins, the directorial debut of actor Julian Curtis and the professional stage debut of actor Hattie Clegg-Robinson.

The Norman Mailer Anecdote touches on a concept that DBC Pierre sums up in his book, Release the Bats: ‘We live in two worlds. One where shit happens and one where we decide what it was. A gap grows when we decide they weren’t the same thing.’ He believes that our extremes live in the gap, ‘The place where the brain erases sticky facts, makes dialogue sound purposeful in retrospect, and manufactures belief in lies.’

Photos: Stephen Henry


This is precisely the concept that The Norman Mailer Anecdote unpacks when a family of three is slowly torn apart over the course of one night by events that intersect and parallel each other. A historic sexual assault claim, issues of consent, inappropriate conduct in a professional setting, alcohol abuse and its effects on behaviour and judgment, unauthorised and restricted content on social media and lack of personal accountability. These are all cross-examined in this legal drama that springs from the upper middle classes of Brisbane.

The set was exquisite, and accolades must be given to Madeleine Barlow and her team for transforming the Diane Cilento Studio into a gorgeous and realistic stylish kitchen/lounge area. It would be great to see more plays with sets this detailed, as it is this artistry as much as the other components that help transport the audience. A consistently basic black set can be so mundane. The music and sound design by Morgan Francis were beautiful and evocative and helped build the drama between the scenes.

As the mother, Helen, Zoë Houghton was a powerhouse. Her performance in the closing scene, where she explodes with rage and realisation, was simply excellent. My reaction was visceral, my blood was fizzing, it was drama at its finest; raw, real and hard-hitting. Hattie Clegg-Robinson perfectly captured Gen Z daughter Samantha. Technically an adult at 18, but still so young, combative, and needing her parents, trying to assert her independence in all its messiness. Her portrayal of intoxication was incredibly realistic, and it was great to see a young actor on the stage representing a generation so authentically.

As the father and husband and all-around good guy, Christopher Sommers was utterly convincing. A pretentious and insecure writer, he had some great humorous moments, which made it all the more devastating to watch him fall as the play unfolded and the twist at the end was revealed.

I purchased a copy of the script for sale in the foyer and read it after the show, as I wanted to fully understand and absorb the work before reviewing it. The current presentation of the script is a 75-minute version with no intermission. The final scene of the script, which serves as a sort of epilogue set one to two years later (Scene 5), was cut, so the play ended on a climactic moment, which was quite emotional to the point that two of the three actors were still in tears during the bows. It was emotional to witness how art affects the artists, and tissues might be handy when the lights go up and quick composure is required.

There are no doubt compelling reasons for the shortened presentation, but it was good to read the full-length script. Not only is it great writing, but it contains more Act Two moments with Helen and Marshall, providing an even greater overall arc for their characters.

This is a wonderfully relevant, thought-provoking work, marking the start of the DOOR 3 program which supports local, independent artists. It’s not to be missed.

The Norman Mailer Anecdote plays at the Diane Cilento Studio at Queensland Theatre until 18 May 2024. A night with the artists is on 8 May. Bookings https://queenslandtheatre.com.au/plays/the-norman-mailer-anecdote

Sarah Skubala

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