Susie Dee directs the premiere of this family drama by young Melbourne playwright Louris van de Geer
Australian playwright Louris van de Geer’s new play takes as its springboard the work of American sociologist Charles Horton Cooley, and the concept he termed the “looking glass self”. Its basic premise is that our sense of identity comes more from interpersonal interactions than from any intrinsic selfhood, that we build our personalities according to our relationship with others. Of course, the original interpersonal interactions are with our parents, so it could be seen as an academic iteration of Philip Larkin’s famous opening line to his poem This Be The Verse: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad.”
Certainly, van de Geer is interested in the family unit as a module for experimentation, a laboratory of selves. Looking Glass opens on a child, Marcus (Daniel O’Neil/Thomas Taylor) staring blankly out at the audience before dropping an icy pole on the ground. It’s an image that brings to mind the recent Netflix show Stranger Things, with its oddly behaved kids and retro sci-fi aesthetics. And the impression lingers when Mum (Daniella Farinacci) and Dad (Peter Houghton) turn up, encouraged and prompted by a character only referred to as the Voice (Josh Price) to interact with Marcus in highly programmed ways.
This means long scenes where they cajole their child into eating breakfast, or playing a ball game; just as often, their frustrations come to the surface when he wilfully misbehaves, jumping on a chair or popping lego bricks in his mouth. While many of these behaviours seem perfectly normal for a young boy, others are more disturbing. At one point, he refuses to recognise his parents, or even acknowledge that he is Marcus at all.
Mum and Dad also seem psychologically damaged, constantly bickering and admonishing each other, highly suspicious of their surroundings and barely able to conceal their mounting discomfort. The Voice is hardly any help, entering every now and then to pop the ball or vacuum the cereal off the floor. His prompts to the parents don't seem to make a skerrick of difference to Marcus’s behaviour; when he starts prompting them in their interactions with each other, that doesn’t seem to help either. There’s a pervading sense of surveillance; at one point, Marcus interrogates his parents about their use of ultrasound when he was still in the womb. “You mean, like spying?”
Director Susie Dee shows her typical flair for arresting stage imagery, augmented by a striking set by Kate Davis and a dynamic lighting design by Amelia Lever-Davidson. The plastic-curtained room is suggestive of a science lab, a cage and a fish bowl, plunging regularly into darkness. It’s unnerving, but Dee manages to elicit performances from Farinacci and Houghton in particular that border on straight realism. They are both very good, and ground the play in the quotidian world of contemporary family life. Price is effective enough in the more offbeat role of the Voice, but isn’t really given any modulation to play with.
As an exploration of the ways in which family dynamics can petrify or atrophy an individual’s sense of self, Looking Glass is intriguing more than it is satisfying. Van de Geer has studied under Schaubühne Berlin’s Marius von Mayenburg, and it shows in her willingness to abstract her characters’ situations in order to prosecute an intellectual idea. It’s a similar one to Mayenburg’s The Ugly One, where a man’s identity is threatened by his changing face.
But a single idea left alone has a tendency to bounce around until it runs out of momentum; a strong opposing or contrasting idea here would have helped create tension and deepen the psychological impact. Van de Geer’s last play in this space, the complex and memorable Triumph, was full of ideas that interacted with each other in fascinating ways. If Looking Glass feels like a step backwards, it’s still evidence of a playwright willing to push into challenging and uncomfortable places.