Existence is a great voyage in which we’re always away from home, in Will Eno’s tragi-comic monologue
The subtitle this 2012 work by Brooklyn-based American playwright Will Eno is “monologue for a slightly foreign man”, and the casting notes dictate that the performer be “ideally slightly foreign to his audience, though a native speaker of English.” This and the title itself are keys to unlocking what sometimes feels like a wilfully mysterious slice of theatre.
Over 70 minutes, we are taken by this “slightly foreign man” on a verbal journey through his mind and memories that is comic, tragic, occasionally menacing. The recurring preoccupations are ‘belonging’ and ‘home’ and ‘travel’, kicking off with the very first line: “I’m not from around here. I guess I never will be. That’s how being from somewhere works. I’ll assume you are, though.” He later describes himself as a “homesick orphan fuck.”
We never discover where our protagonist is from, though he tells us quite a bit about his homeland’s customs – enough to suggest he’s rooted to an actual world in a specific way. This is not one of Samuel Beckett’s theatrical creatures, unmoored from era, setting and personal history; Slightly Foreign Man has history, a personality and an era (one with airports and retina scans). All that remains is for him to communicate himself to us, the audience – who he makes participants in his storytelling, addressing us en masse, and occasionally as individuals.
And so Title and Deed becomes a demonstration of the way we construe and construct ourselves, others, and our world, by means of words. “They do the job”, our protagonist tells us. At the same time, his monologue consistently demonstrates their slippery nature. (Eno has a lot of fun with this, and there are laugh-out-loud moments.)
In Slightly Foreign Man, Eno has created an ‘essential human’ (the ‘platonic form’ of a human, if you like) with which he can make a point about broader humanity. Like every human, SFM is mysterious and ultimately ‘unknowable’ to his fellow beings, but also quite like them. He is only slightly foreign. Like SFM, we are all trying to articulate ourselves and achieve a sense of belonging; constantly trying to understand other people, and relate to them. We are all on a “great voyage...wishing [we] were home.”
Like Beckett, Eno draws a parallel between theatre and life: Slightly Foreign Man seems sometimes on script, sometimes off script, conscious of creating narratives and relating to the audience, using familiar constructs of character or phrasing or aesthetic. Anything to communicate, and connect. “Don’t hate me,” says Slightly Foreign Man in his opening lines. And later: “Is this the part where I suddenly say, ‘We’re not that different, you and I’?”
Bani channels a kind of desperate cheerfulness and ‘desire to please’ in his performance; he’s like one of those people trying to sell you spiritual salvation outside the train station. But he’s not okay: tears well up; he hits himself with a stick; he re-enacts with menace an early interaction with his father, channeling his father’s seething rage.
Bani is a Wadagadum man from Thursday Island in the Torres Strait (whose father, incidentally, was a tribal chief), and casting him as Slightly Foreign Man allows for an extra layer of interpretation of Eno’s text that is particularly moving. It’s a great choice by Jada Alberts, making her directorial debut having written The Brothers Wreck for Belvoir as part of the Balnaves Award.
Alberts makes some strong choices in her staging, including ignoring Eno’s opening stage directions. Rather than have Slightly Foreign Man arrive on stage with his bag as the lights go up, she has actor Jimi Bani on stage as we enter and for a full five minutes as the audience seat and settle themselves – his bag on the floor behind him. She also creates a strong aesthetic ‘place’ on stage, in contrast to the more theatrical ‘blank space’ (or theatre-as-theatre) that is suggested both by Eno’s staging note and the premiere production, by the company he wrote the play for.
The first choice arguably has negligible effect, but the second one sometimes feels like a nagging distraction: as an audience member, you are trained to read clues in a set that should help you understand the story/character. But Slightly Foreign Man’s tools are his body and words – isn’t that the point of the play? Isn’t that essential to Eno’s demonstration of the universal ‘existential dilemma’?
The main obstacle in this production, however, is one inherent to the text – and it’s an interesting conundrum: the success of Eno’s exercise in ‘relating’ relies upon each audience member’s imagination and memories being triggered by the stories Slightly Foreign Man tells us: when he talks of the grief of loss, of parental cruelty, of childhood pastimes, we should (and naturally do) imagine our own. This is empathy in action. But the pace of the monologue and the density of the language means there’s scarcely a moment to reflect before we’re whisked onwards to the next thought.
Consequently, Title and Deed struggles to make the leap from interesting theatre puzzle and intellectual entertainment to emotionally rich theatrical experience.