Monday, February 21, 2011

Review: A Behanding in Spokane


Melbourne Theatre Company.

A recent comment by Chris Summers over at Theatre Notes got me rethinking my responses to the MTC's latest. So far I've been feeling that my reaction accords with the general consensus, which could be summed up as follows:

Strong production of a very darkly comic play; excellent performances; some laugh-out-loud moments; not much depth but makes the most of its modest material.

Summers points out a flaw in this mild critique – it completely overlooks the possibility that A Behanding in Spokane features some profoundly offensive racism. This wasn't missed in US productions of the play which inspired a range of protests. I hadn't come across anyone making much of a point about it here, however, and that includes myself, despite the niggling concerns I'd had when watching the production.

Let's back up a step for the latecomers. A Behanding... was written by Martin McDonagh, Irish playwright of some renown, who penned a bunch of black comedies in the 90s and then dipped out of theatre for a good 15 years before returning with this number. Unlike his earlier work, it's set in contemporary America, and speaks to racial history and racist violence in the US on a number of levels. The monstrous figure at its centre is a one-handed psychopathic white supremacist who lost his paw at the hands of mysterious hill-billies decades ago and is on a quest to recover the missing glove-filler. A couple of deadbeat weed-dealers try to sell him the hand of someone else and quickly find they've chosen the wrong one-handed psychopathic white supremacist upon whom to pull a swiftie. Locked in a no-tell hotel room with the gun-waving killer, their only real hope lies in the figure of a truly strange reception dude whose notions of fatalism, revenge and rescue make him something less than an ideal saviour.

I'm not giving too much away there, since there are a bunch of cool surprises that are worth experiencing first-hand (hurr hurr). As I say, it's a pretty funny piece and there's a nice fight using severed hands and Ben Grant's sound design features excellent and strategic deployment of banjo. While there are obvious nods to the classic Western and the revenge drama, it doesn't leave you plumbing subterranean meanings to work out what it's all about. You laugh, maybe cringe a bit, head off for a late supper.

Which is the odd problem here. I'll be the first to call a production on its odious race politics but found a muting of affect when watching Behanding. There's racism in the piece, for sure – it's all about a violent bigot terrorising two people, one of whom is black (I forgot to mention that before). There's great swathes of racist abuse and much use of offensive epithets but I don't think that's exactly at the core of the controversy in the US, which is more about the characterisation of an African-American as a kowtowing clown patched together from film and television cliches. It's not necessarily that a white Irishman can't write a black American character, but if you're going to write a play that puts race front and centre, that handling of race certainly merits extra scrutiny.

So why didn't I leave Behanding with my hackles up? I don't think it's about a cultural distance from the US, for me, although I guess some Australian audience members wouldn't really care one way or another when it comes to the massively problematic legacy of US racial history. And I don't think it's because people who find fault in the play are overreading; if you find racism there, you do you should feel free to point it out.

I guess it's that the play's moral compass seems epitomised by that weirdo reception guy, Mervyn. Late in the piece a guy points a gun in his face and asks “why do you want to die?” He replies that he doesn't want to die. He just, well, doesn't care either way, and the logic of his character's actions so far becomes clear: he's able to take the narrative in bizarre directions because he's completely unburdened by an instinct for self-preservation. This means he could be a hero or villain at any one moment, and in a way shatters the very notion of either.

But A Behanding in Spokane seems to me to be on Mervyn's side all the way. If it's racist, it's because it doesn't care one way or the other. Its racism feels like the product of disinterest, not concern – as if McDonagh didn't set out to ignite bonfires of passionate outrage but just started playing with some matches in an underventilated hotel room. If I left the theatre thinking “I enjoyed it but didn't really care about anything I saw,” then I'm sort of becoming Mervynesque myself, and I wonder if the play positions its audience thus. If we shrug off its racism, it might be because the play does the same.

I wonder what to make of all that.

Sumner Theatre until March 9.

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