THE MAN WITH THE SEPTEMBER FACE.
By Uninvited Guests. Ends Saturday at the Arts Centre.
Last week a director arranged to meet me at a local café. We’d never met and stupidly forgot to arrange some kind of identificatory signal (“I shall be wearing a cheesecloth tunic and throwing my slippers at passing motorists”). Luckily her contacts at VCAM (I think) had given her a description. Apparently I look like “an old man”.
So it is with some heaviness of heart that enter this, the autumn of my days. I am hunkering down writing my memoirs in earnest – currently drafting Vol. IX, “Historic Events Involving Parts of My Forehead” – and contemplating bequeathing something to various worthy institutions, which at this stage means compiling iTunes playlists that will be emailed upon my demise.
But when I am lying on my deathbed surrounded by family and loved one, with forced breaths whispering priceless words of wisdom I have stolen and recounting my favourite moments from Jersey Boys, there will come a moment when I beckon those attending to lean a little closer. “Before I go,” I will croak, “there is one more thing of which I must speak.
“Before I head to that great skate-rink in the sky, it is my duty to explain why those few people who had a middling reaction to The Man With the September Face were missing the point.”
September Face arrived at the Arts Centre on the back of huge expectations. Four years in the making, a fantastic cast, great creative team and so on. None of that really matters. What matters is that it proposed to take on a period of history often reviled but absolutely formative for so many of today’s audiences – the 80s. Big hair, loud fashion, unforgettable music. An era defined more by style than substance, and a style which can only be revived ironically today, even if you weren’t there the first time around.
This is the problem, and by problem I mean beauty, of The Man with the September Face. It’s a play about irony and nostalgia, not just a nostalgic or ironic play. It’s not so much a celebration of the 80s and the things that defined my youth as an elegy. It’s an attempt to build a time machine that proves that time machines are impossible.
On paper it’s something else. It tells the story of Jesse, a suburban teen rollerskater whose world is limited to the local rink and its inhabitants. He dreams of making it to the national championships and is pushed hard by his life-scarred mother. His efforts are challenged by his nemesis, the local rink DJ Wolf, and the arrival of a new girl from Adelaide sets him wondering if there’s more to life than simply fulfilling the expectations of others. He determines to use skating to create something never before seen – an artistic and philosophical expression of the nothingness of existence which will rock the skate establishment to its core.
I’ve heard a few people disappointed by the piece. They’ve complained that it doesn’t end with a big skate number. There aren’t enough epic 80s-style skate off sequences. Isn’t this the point? Wouldn’t it be a bit wrong to create a drama exploring the loss of innocence, the discovery of our own limited capacities as we enter adulthood, the realities of failure and mortality and aging, relieved by kitschy mass rollerskating scenes that allow us to sink back into nostalgia and cheesy recollection?
This is the success and failure of September Face. It presents itself as irony in its most debased, pop cultural form – as a funny riff on scrunchies and spandex and Spandau Ballet. But really, it’s ironic in the dramatic sense: working against this surface humour is a deep and abiding melancholy centring on the fact that we can’t go back to the Edenic state of youth. If laughing at the 80s is a way of defusing that sense of loss, then September Face’s laughter always echoes with a hollow ring.
Two touchstones during the piece’s creation were Shelley’s “Ozymandias” and Breughel’s “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus”. In the first instance, the key theme was exploring how even the grandest accomplishments will eventually meet ruin and will, eventually, be all but forgotten. In the second, more interesting (to me) case, we have a painting in which the epic myth of hubris, a man who dared to fly close to the sun, is rendered as an almost unnoticeable detail in a rich and gorgeous vista. Icarus’ fall might have meant a lot to him, but the rest of the world went on with its daily work and history proceeded without interruption.
That’s the story of September Face. It doesn’t reduce the 80s to a surface world of aggrandised style and ironic icons – well, it does at first – but instead focuses on the tiny people living tiny lives who make up our history, and to a large extent ourselves. It doesn’t end with a big showstopping number, but for me it ends with perhaps the only moment this year when I felt that all-too-rare tingle up the back of my neck that signals something irretrievable and perhaps unspeakable has found expression.
The relentless whirl of the skaters recreating a sad skate rink in the Fairfax, endlessly turning counterclockwise, couldn’t turn back that clock no matter how fast they went. But there’s something there that connected the now to the then, for me. On the other hand, I guess I am just an old man.