A pseudo-autobiographical recount of the aftermath of the publication of her memoir, Banana Girl, Michele Lee’s new play bends the boundaries of past and present, reality and dreams in an exploration of the self as daughter, writer, woman, and outsider. Following her alter ego Natalie Yang through an out of control downward spiral of self-doubt, professional and personal failure, and disappointment with the illusion of success, Going Down contains all the elements of a powerful contemporary mirror for the millennial generation.
Plenty of white men have no qualms at all about the universality of their experience; happy to write thinly veiled autobiographies and long diatribes fluctuating between self-congratulation and self-flagellation and charging audiences for the pleasure. To see a young Asian-Australian woman firmly planting herself and her experiences at the centre of the audience’s gaze, maybe before she’s even sure what she’s doing, is refreshing and still desperately lacking on the mainstage.
Natalie Yang (Catherine Davies) has just published her confronting and unexpected sexual manifesto/memoir detailing her experience with bed-hopping across Melbourne and is struggling with the inevitable lull in sales and interest. Her literary rival, Lulu Jayadi (Jenny Wu), on the other hand, is raking in the readers, awards, and speaking gigs for her memoirs about her parents’ migrant experiences. Framing the rivalry as appealing to white guilt with the heartbreaking “other” vs writing past cultural and racial difference and appealing to a universal feminist experience is bold in front of a famously white STC audience. But it adds depth and complexity to what may otherwise be another writer lamenting the fickleness of artistic success. It speaks deeply to the unique experience of marginalised creatives who must balance telling the “right” migrant/queer/female/etc story and writing something that is also true to themselves as whole humans. It is additionally interesting that Jayadi is revealed to struggle with the same dilemma, humanising her superhuman success and admitting there is no correct route to navigating questions like these.
Davies is high energy from the very get-go; decked out in Gorman and marimekko, her characterisation as conflicted, stubborn, semi-self-aware millennial is spot on in the climate of 2018 Australia. I would have appreciated a few calmer, less bug-eyed moments throughout her performance but then it mayn’t have represented the desperate emotional break the play is supposed to capture. The rest of the cast works as an ensemble, shifting between a myriad of close and distant characters like her best friends (Naomi Rukavina and Paul Blenheim), baristas and bartenders, cyclists and rollerbladers, and a wise homeless person who all wander in and out of the scenes as relevant. The amount of extraneous characters becomes repetitive over the hour and twenty minutes but also accurately represents the constant cycle of people and faces that a major city like Melbourne depends on. The question is whether or not this adds to the play or just serves as a distraction.
As a co-production between STC and Malthouse Theatre and with a playwright based in Melbourne, the vast majority of satire and humour is specifically Melbourne centric. It’s not that Sydney is so far removed from Melbourne as to not understand a pop-up lemonade stand selling over-sweetened glasses for $12, but they are inside jokes that are better received by those who live it on a daily basis. Other than poking fun at Melbourne, the play’s humour also relies heavily on Yang’s free sexuality and the often crude and crass way she displays it in discussion and action. As seen in her memoir Banana Girl and her follow-up plan of writing 100 Cocks in 100 Nights, a lot of Yang’s (and Lee’s) work focuses on detailed description and exploration of her sexual experiences, which, as already said, is a fascinating deviation from the palatable Asian-Australian experience, but when reduced to dick jokes and defences of dick jokes, wears thin really quickly.
The stand-out of this production is the marriage of contemporary Australian themes and an interesting and experimental design. The set, designed by the Sisters Hayes, is angular and nestled between industrial chic and Scandinavian functionality. It’s abstract enough to recreate a trendy bar, small Melbourne flat, and the Wheeler Centre stage while not forcing the audience to picture something upon blank black walls. The integration of sound and lighting from Sian James-Holland and THE SWEATS is wonderfully contemporary without becoming superfluous or cringey cliche; not a small feat when projecting fictitious tweets and hashtags. The marimekko cult worship and Yang’s high phone call to her mother while the waves of the Mekong swept over her were two moments that most clearly displayed the masterful design of this production.
Going Down has so many of the elements of a production aimed directly at me: an unapologetic woman protagonist taking up time and space for her own gain, a creative design that uniquely portrays the story on stage, and a complicated examination of wider contemporary cultural and literary considerations. If the humour had been more to my taste, this would have been my perfect show.
Going Down is playing at Sydney Theatre Company’s Wharf 2 Theatre from March 29th – May 5th and at Malthouse Theatre’s Beckett Theatre from May 10th – June 3rd.