Catherine Davies stars in playwright Michele Lee's darkly funny (and sexy) new play for Malthouse
Contemporary Australian city life bursts off the stage with playfulness and incisive commentary in Going Down, a new play by Michele Lee. Natalie (Catherine Davies), outfitted in Gorman and carrying a Marimekko tote around Melbourne, has written a sexually adventurous memoir: Banana Girl. But readers at a book talk in regional Victoria – and even her lefty friends (played by Josh Price and Naomi Rukavina) – want to know why her memoir isn’t as ‘Asian’ as early-twenties-literary hotshot Lulu Jayadi (Jenny Wu). Those sensitive accounts of family hardships might feel too model-minority trauma-porn to Natalie, but they’re flying off the shelves and selling out talks at the Wheeler Centre. So what’s a young writer to do? Lean into her modern sex-positive persona with a new book called 100 Cocks in 100 Nights? Or should she write about her Hmong heritage for a crack at the Miles Franklin?
Davies is unstoppable as Natalie, who, high on sugar and her own ideas, darts from scene to scene with unflagging energy. She’s rude to Lulu, who turns out to be something completely different from her pure persona (Wu does sensitive, warm work here) and her friendships start to suffer as Natalie becomes obsessed with the publishing world and her place in it. So what is the right thing to do? Which stories matter? Do some matter more than others?
Lee’s play grapples with these questions, drawing on her own life experience (Lee has indeed written a book called Banana Girl) to create a rich comedy-drama that isn’t afraid to be silly. It also isn’t afraid to be complicated. Natalie can’t really avoid her heritage and culture the way she’d like – and as the play argues she has the right to do – but that contradiction feels natural and invigorating in its refusal to be resolved. There are no easy answers to questions of how we define ourselves and others, or which stories should or should not be told. But what we can do, and what Lee does here, is examine how we take in and value those stories – and more importantly, why.
Director Leticia Cáceres gifts the play with a buoyancy that doesn’t sell its emotional centre short, but feels in conversation with the women in the room – the ones who recognise this world and the people in it from their own lives, who understand the language and connections between Natalie, her friends, and her rivals through real-life shorthand. Davies is the centre of Cáceres’ universe, and we follow her with ease; Cáceres seems to have the entire cast revolve around Natalie, both in movement and emotion.
An inventive, adaptable and problem-solving set by the Sisters Hayes flashes texts, dating app messages and sly stand-ins for dick pics, and when Natalie – too far gone on a sugar high – starts to lose her grip on reality, they merge a Melbourne mall with the rising Mekong through projections (with clever lighting by Sian James-Holland, and sound from The Sweats).
The cast follows Davies’ energetic lead to give thoughtful, oversize but sincere performances – Rukavina and Wu shine in their supporting roles (everyone except Davies takes on a number of parts), and the world is fleshed out in a series of comic cameos by Paul Blenheim, who brings inner-city Melbourne to life.
This is a sharp script by a compelling new Australian voice, and is given the merry, thoughtful production of its dreams by Cáceres and cast. It won’t tell you which books to buy, but it might encourage you to read more of them.