Madagascar is a play that resists superlatives. It’s pretty familiar and pretty forgettable. It’s not very anything. I enjoyed it very much and would happily see it again.
It’s a perfect example of what could be called Literary Theatre. It’s literary in the way that “literary fiction” is literary, even though that term doesn’t make a whole heap of literal sense. It’s the dramatic equivalent of those serious novels that everybody seems to read at the same time because they are educated and worldly sorts who enjoying talking about these novels with other people who have read them. Generally they have a Big Theme and a bunch of potted plant characters and a few references to real historical incidents and a running allusion to another famous work of art.
The MTC always has at least one piece of Literary Theatre in each year’s program. You can almost always spot it by the single-word title which announces the Big Theme in case you don’t get it from actually watching the play. It’s usually something like Doubt or Grace or Enlightenment. In fact, Madagascar (admittedly a place rather than a theme) presents almost precisely the same scenario as Enlightenment: how people react to the disappearance of a loved one. In Enlightenment, which I didn’t enjoy at all, we were subjected to the interminable moanings of the most plummy mouthed British couple ever to grace the Fairfax as they grieved for their missing son, followed by the interminable moanings of the same couple when he showed up with no memory, and finally their interminable moanings when he turned out to be a psychopathic stranger trying to infiltrate their privileged middle-class lives. You could tell he was a psychopath because he found it desirable to spend any time at all with these people.
Who are these people and why should I care?
This is a good and useful and ask-worthy question a lot of people have when sitting in a theatre. If they’re watching a certain kind of thing, a classic or naïve realist play, for example, and I don’t mean naïve in the pejorative sense of ‘primitive’ but in the philosophical tradition of seeing things pretty much as they are, as available to common sense, you know, as being representations reliably attached to some reality, then what we’re asking is “who are these people being represented and why should I care?” If we’re watching something a little more self-conscious, something that more openly articulates the artificial connection between representation and that being represented, then we might shift the question somewhere different: “who are these people putting on this show and why should I care about them?” In any case, it’s not that uncommon to sit (or stand) there wondering at whose behest you’re supposed to be paying attention and for what reason they deserve it when you could be at home watching The Wire.
I used the word ‘articulate’ in that mid-strength ramble for a reason: the question “Who are these people and why should I care?” is really two questions articulated in the way a truck cab is articulated to its trailer. What theatre has a long and very successful tradition of doing is making that articulation seem natural – the trailer of “why we should care” is hauled along by the engine of “who are these people?” Our answer to the first often dictates our answer to the second. When we determine who we’re watching (self-absorbed bourgeois characters, or self-obsessed students trying to reinvent theatre, or a talent-free writer looking for acceptance, or a piece of brie placed on a toilet lid in a Brunswick warehouse) our response to that becomes our response to the why-we-should-care thing.
But is that the only way? It certainly seems to explain so much of the world beyond theatre. It’s how the modern prison operates in society. Who are these people? Bad people. Why should I care? I shouldn’t. Who are these people? Whinging artists/corporate fat-cats/philistines who can’t appreciate art. Why should I care? See above.
You can debate these write-offs, but it’s harder to defend the compassionate rights of someone when the answer to “who?” is “I don’t know”. There are a lot of people in the world that we don’t really care about because we have no idea who they are, in any sense. We don’t have an idea of them. We don’t have an identity for them. They’re no one. Why should we care? Where the hell is Madagascar?
This is sort of what Madagascar is about: there’s a running thread touching on First World neglect or compassion for its Third World Others. It’s pretty light and not too confronting. It certainly won’t upset any audience members guilty of such complacency.
But more interesting to me was the way every character in the play, whether on stage or just imagined, seems to be trying to erase themselves from existence in various ways. We don’t really know who they are despite their constant talk (the piece is almost all monologue) and they’re even attempting to free themselves of whatever identity they do have. So why should we care?
Madagascar’s quiet argument seems to be that this is one of the fundamental dilemmas of our time: can we effectively care for people who are not real to us? This is a political question, a personal question and, in this case, a theatrical question.
It’s beautifully performed here with extra-special goodness doled out by the brilliant Noni Hazelhurst. It’s not a piece that’ll provoke extremely passionate responses, and some will probably find it quite insipid and repetitive (as Theatre Notes did). I found it otherwise, but completely agree with that assessment too.
Fairfax Theatre, the Arts Centre until 3 April.