Framing the set of Myfanwy Hocking’s newest show, How To Be A Person When The World Is Ending are shining Mylar balloons that spell out ‘APOCALYPSE’. Like the show, there is a certain playful spectacle to this golden lettering.
Though of course, this spectacle is cut through by the threat that the balloons might pop any minute. This danger is not apocalyptic, only quietly threatening. The balloons still bounce and shimmer in gorgeous ignorance, spelling out the end times all the while.
In this, they offer the perfect symbol for a show that takes a post-dramatic deep dive into impending global Armageddon and the often-absurd ways we cope, avoid or revel in it.
As wryly funny as it is subtly terrifying, Hocking’s show is a 75-minute feast for world-weary eyes. Despite occasional missteps and some structural issues, it tackles contemporary anxieties with an originality that is magnetic to watch – like a series of metallic balloons, perhaps.
Theatre Works has been transformed into a classic party scene. With board games, streamers, solo cups and balloons (of course), a group of friends gather to celebrate, commiserate and prepare for the end of the world.
What follows is a series of vignettes loosely connected by a sense of impending doom. The precise nature of this doomsday is unspecified. The show moves through possibilities – climate crisis, nuclear warfare, a pandemic – but it’s not the character of the Armageddon that matters but rather how we navigate our personal lives in its near-constant shadow.
A TV screen at the back of the stage offers title cards that orient each scene. Reading like chapter titles or TED TALK subcategories, these slides range from ‘MATERIALISM’, ‘MUNDANITY’, ‘NIHILISM’ to ‘PIERROT THE CLOWN GOES TO WORK’, among others.
The ensuing scenes are as absurd is you might expect from these titles – a party clown trauma dumps on children, a couple doom scroll to the nell of a Father Clock and a new entrepreneur proposes shooting diamonds into the stratosphere.
Of the ensemble of actors assembled here, most take to these absurd conceits with aplomb. Meg Dunn finds humour in even the most surreal and earnest monologues. She is also the closest we have to a main character. Opening the show, she is absent from the recurring party sequence and given what resembles a character arc by way of a tongue-in-cheek partnership with co-star Sebastian Li.
Li tackles this partnership with a dry restraint and side-splitting control of his facial expressions. Together, Li and Dunn offer many of the show’s highlights. Hocking is herself a cast member, delivering powerhouse physical comedy and a surprisingly affecting self-elegy that matches satire with pathos.
At times, the show seems divided between Dunn and Hocking. Following similar speech patterns or recycling similar tropes as far as comedic beats or dialogue structures, the pair almost compete for the role of main character.
The purpose of Dunn’s absence from the party sequence seems noticeably underdeveloped in a show that, even in its absurdities, boasts a confident sense of intentionality behind every choice.
Ultimately, Hocking’s writing shines when it allows scenes to encounter profound moments incidentally. A friend elegises themselves, a couple watching a TV screen tell them that they’re unhappy and a woman fails to entertain herself during a trip to the beach.
Listed like this and these vignettes seem fragmentary to the point of utter meaninglessness. In fact, this seems like the point. It is a surprise, then, to find in each scene a quiet kernel of emotional acuity or social commentary. The show’s strongest comedic moments occur in similar ways; disguised by larger-than-life scenarios and characters.
Where How To Be A Person When The World Is Ending flounders is at moments when it appears to underestimate its audience by spoon-feeding us the punchline or making explicit the subtext that is better served when it sits tantalisingly below the surface.
Covert insights anchor the show’s best sequences and deepen its humour. Explicit attempts to cultivate an emotional response – whether comedic or otherwise – make some individual scenes resemble that of a skit show rather than a well-thought-out piece of post-dramatic theatre.
Still, there is much to enjoy in this arresting new production. Direction by Dunn is well-attuned to Hocking’s complex text, employing simple blocking and lighting changes to help clarify changes in character and shifts in tone.
Some scene transitions could be more finely choreographed and underscoring at times overpowers dialogue, but overall, the show is tightly rehearsed by what is clearly a tight-knit cast.
There is an addicting playfulness to How To A Person When The World Is Ending that this cast clearly revel in; a nihilistic reverie that leads somewhere significant, if not necessary hopeful – at times despite itself.
How To Be a Person When the World is Ending
Theatre Works, 14 Acland Street, St Kilda
Performance: Tuesday 18 October 2022
Season continues to 22 October 2022
For more information, visit: www.theatreworks.org.au for details.
Image: How To Be a Person When the World is Ending (supplied)
Review: Guy Webster