Edward “Eddie” Bernays made a name for himself in the 20th century as the “father of public relations” by mastering the art of propaganda. As he nears the end of his life, an interview for a forthcoming biography of his wife sends Eddie deep into his memories and the ghosts of his past make their grievances known.
Based on the real life of Eddie Bernays (Pat Mandziy) and the real biography written by Susan Henry (Natasha Cheng), Bryce Bofinger’s script imagines Eddie’s final years populated by the swirling presences of his daughter Anne (Alana Louise), his uncle Sigmund Freud (Luke Visentin), and a range of political figures from the US and abroad. Framed as a show to honour his late wife Doris Fleischmann, Eddie is assisted by a stagehand (Alexandra Rigby) who attempts to keep the show running even as Eddie begins to lose control of his narrative. The structure is surreal and meta but often convoluted and difficult to follow without a comprehensive knowledge of Eddie’s life and the timeline of his memories.
The fractured storytelling was detrimentally impacted by the few markers of change in time, location, or between reality and imagination. Remi McKay’s production design included movement between two seating areas and some cue-cards with dates while occasional costume changes at least signalled character swaps. But the lighting design by Amber Spooner, in particular, seemed entirely removed from the action on stage and represented a lost opportunity to create atmosphere and help the audience follow massive leaps in the narrative.
Other directorial choices by Samira Spring were variably effective including the characterisation of young Doris (Cheng) as a stilted air-head to indicate Eddie’s disingenuous remembrance of her. Additionally, Visentin’s evocation of historical figures from Freud to Joseph Goebbels was well-executed and established the production’s branching points of historical reference. But the stand-out performance came from Louise who gave a consistent, compelling portrayal of a righteous daughter and a meddlesome ghost. It was her strong stage presence that held the wobblier scenes together while also providing the motivation for the overarching narrative of exposing Eddie’s mis-remembrance and hypocrisy.
Bernays certainly lived a colourful life and his questionable ethical positioning as a propagandist, with hinted influence on the Nazi propaganda machine, is fertile ground for theatrical investigation. But this rendition of the story was undercooked and could have benefited from a more refined approach to the nuances and contradictions of Eddie Bernays’s life.
Lunch with Bernays is running at the Bordello from June 21st-24th
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