By Malthouse Theatre.
Furious Mattress is a fun example of the Family Comedy genre made popular by such Hollywood laff-fests as Uncle Buck, What About Bob? and The Exorcist. In these tales the comfortable domestic sphere of an ordinary family is sent spinning by the arrival of a wacky outsider who teaches everyone a lesson about life, love and the true meaning of family. Sometimes among the laughs there’s a more affecting moment or two in which a character discovers resources within themselves they never suspected of existing. Or, in the case of Furious Mattress, a giant rat crawls out of their nether regions and does unspeakable things to a man in shorty-shorts.
This is the kind of play that shows how funny violent and drawn-out manslaughter based on true events can really be. Reactions to this production have so far spanned the spectrum from WTF? to WTF? and I suppose my response is somewhere in the middle there. It’s definitely a confusing work of theatre, but I honestly think it’s a confused work, too.
Ostensibly inspired by the exorcism that killed a Victorian woman in 1993, the play is in no way documentary. It goes from straight-faced seriousness to carnivalesque buffoonery to hammy comedy. There are stretches of tedium interrupted by up-yours silliness. It’s so downright bizarre that you’re never sure if you’re in the presence of demented genius or an angry argument between creatives as to what exactly they’re trying to do here.
Else lies dead on a bed after an exorcism gone wrong (can they go right?) Her husband Pierce and fellow believer Anna wait for her spirit to return to her body; they nibble biscuits and try to remember what exorcist Max said would happen next and kind of talk around the fact that a mouldering corpse is gathering flies in the next room. After this lengthy preamble we shift back to the events leading up to the killing and the supernatural hoo-hah that accompanied it.
There’s a fair bit of po-faced naturalism for the first hour or so and the entire first act is quite boring. It’s only when you begin to pick up on the mounting number of ‘mistakes’ that things get interesting. A phone ring sounds nothing like the phone in question would; actors cross spaces that are supposed to be walled; characters ignore events which have just occurred; dramatic music ushers in scenes with little drama. Any of these instances could have been errors in direction or design or performance but there are so darn many of them that they must be deliberate. The alternative is too horrific to consider. And you begin to realise that despite the garb, what you’re watching is not horror at all but comedy.
There are numerous anachronisms that hint that the play couldn’t be set in 1993, too – Max asks if there’s a DVD player in the house, and enthuses over the “crabwalk” scene restored in the director’s cut of The Exorcist. That scene didn’t surface in any releases until 2000, which proves how much of a nerd I am. Here it is on YouTube – be warned, it’s actually scarier than I remembered so don’t watch if you’re not into creepy upside-down-walking kids with blood coming out of their mouths.
Thing is, just watching that scene on a tiny screen is far more creepy than anything in Furious Mattress. This play isn’t trying to generate chills. There’s very little of the uncanny on offer – the horrors don’t emerge from the familiar but are at odds with it. It would have been very easy to slip in more truly unsettling imagery, especially by description alone. When asked if he’s seen any hard evidence of the diabolical in Else, Pierce says that he’s seen things that would make your hair stand on end. Like what? Did she yawn and he caught a glimpse of a shrunken baby’s head at the back of her throat? Was she brushing her hair and blood began to seep from the roots? Did she make him a stew in which he found a maggot with tiny words carved into its skin? It couldn’t have been hard to insert a few sinister things like this, and it would have made sense to hear Pierce translating his real fears about his wife into such delusional fantasies. But we’ll never know.
We do know that she began doing things that bugged him – looking at him oddly, or biting her lip without explanation. It’s obvious that Pierce is projecting his own dissatisfaction and anxiety (with his marriage or his life or something) onto Else, which makes the exorcism a horribly cruel form of marital counselling. But this all-too-human tragedy is later buried in the ridiculousness that results.
And oh, how ridiculous it gets. Without giving too much away, the banality is upended by scenes of excess that are really, honestly laugh-out-loud stuff. As my viewing companion commented: if someone climbs into a doona cover and starts dancing around, there’s no way that be taken seriously. That’s not what happens here, but it’s close enough.
So what – is it really comedy? Thomas Wright plays Max the exorcist as if it is – he could have stepped out of an episode of Kath & Kim. Rita Kalnejais is clearly having a laugh at certain points in the piece. But Robert Menzies plays Pierce as a pitiful man-child you can’t laugh at but rather feel a low-level of disgust towards. And then there’s Kate Kendall.
There was a moment during the production when I thought that Kendall seemed to be in a different play to the rest of the cast. Possibly a much better play, too. She’s a superb live actor and she gives Else a tenderness and authenticity that is often moving – she injects a sincerity into a piece that wants to resist such sincerity. Her Else is a victim of non-specific mental illness whose lot is worsened by the abuse it provokes from her husband and community. This is the play’s real horror, but when people starting slapping her (or the space a foot in front of her face) to the accompaniment of “BIFF!” sound effects that horror devolves into laughter.
(Also: When I was a kid I had a babysitter who was an evangelical Christian. Once she told me of the time she’d walked into a church and spotted a giant black baboon with a demon’s face sitting in one of the pews. Emboldened by her faith, she brandished her crucifix and firmly told the devil “The body of Christ compels you! The body of Christ compels you!” That was a fun day.)
Furious Mattress doesn’t try to get inside the reality of the believing mind. Writer Melissa Reeves’ program notes state that she strove not to tell the story “from a slightly smug distance… but as common and familiar and everyday.” This doesn’t happen. The characters of Furious Mattress seem to be treated with faint disdain – these fundamentalists aren’t guided by a troubling but comprehensible logic; they’re just a bit stupid.
This is the kind of production I can’t stop thinking about. If exorcism is a way of ritually making safe perceived threats against the self or society – of naming and containing rather than expelling – then talking about Furious Mattress, or writing about it, is a form of exorcism too. It changes the thing itself in trying to explain it, and perhaps, sometimes, kills it too. Maybe the real thing that’s so hard to face directly here is the possibility that theatre, like religion, might sometimes be a bunch of people pretending they know what they’re doing and hoping they’ve picked the right god to follow.
Beckett Theatre, until 13 March.
Beckett Theatre, until 13 March.