Care Instructions is one of those postmodern theatre productions guaranteed to split an audience squarely down the centre: you’re either going to love it or hate it, understand it or shake your head, eyebrows raised.
I wanted to love it, I really did. The set is exquisite, the music a divine match to the text, and the performances from Jane Bayly, Liz Jones, and Caroline Lee are brave and believable. I was, however, ultimately left with a feeling of unsettling dissatisfaction. While I had some intuitive understanding of the text, and could very well see myself enjoying it as a piece of literature, as a play it was fairly impenetrable. This density was hinted at before we were even seated; on the wall leading into the theatre a large note from the Director explained the themes and the Sleeping Beauty idea within the piece. And I can see the need for such an explanation. Even with the note, I struggled to make the Sleeping Beauty connection.
The opening of Care Instructions, though visually beautiful and cleverly done with a video projection onto the front of a dryer, was too long. The language (in the entire play) is highly allusive, crammed full of word-play and repetition, and without action is extremely demanding of the audience. The language is beautiful, but the hunt for meaning can be taxing, and I found myself spending too long chewing over sections, searching for meaning, and then missing the next bit. But perhaps that’s the whole idea of post-narrative, and letting the meaning and themes wash over you in a tumble of evocative language is exactly what was intended.
Care Instructions is a wonderful idea, ripe with potential. It has an enchanting quality that’s wholly satisfying in itself. It uses fairy tale, nursery rhyme, poetry, myth, and song, along with a discourse about washing and the care instructions of clothes, to explore and attack gender stereotypes. “Adam and Eve were bathed... Adam and Eve drowned, who do you think was saved?...Wash wash, mend mend, relinquish the witch…”
There are some wonderfully ironic references to 1950s films that lampoon the idea of the ecstasy that women get from women’s work. Bayly, Jones and Lee absolutely shine in these sections. Jones, who manages to convey that meaning to the audience well, positively drips with sarcasm and is particularly engaging. There are several moments of pure theatre magic in Care Instructions, with breathtaking directorial vision from Margaret Cameron. The set design is striking in its simplicity and used to great effect.
At its core, Care Instructions is both a celebration of womens’ domestic work and a subversion of that celebration. Almost every woman alive understands the joy of a perfect drying day, where all the necessary elements of nature come together in a perfect, dazzling display. Beneath this, though, a woman also understands what precedes a line full of fresh smelling, satisfyingly clean washing - washing that has been twisted but not wrung, shaken, but not tumble dried, lain flat, but not stretched. What comes before is dirt and filth; the stains and odours of what makes humans human. And it has been the task of womankind to deal with this unpleasantness, and to deal with the tedious directions enshrined in the care instructions. A bare-breasted Jane Bayly, blind-folded and standing atop a mountain of laundry bags, an iron in her raised hand, makes for a perverse Lady Justice. Juxtaposed with this is a joyous, orgasmic even, dance of folding sheets and sniffing a bundle of freshly cleaned clothes. Allusive language aside, it’s hard to miss the meaning conferred in images like these.
Care Instructions is not for everyone, but it is a beautifully constructed piece of theatre that provides an audience with a unique experience.
Malthouse Theatre presents an Aphids Production
by Cynthia Troup
Director and Designer Margaret Cameron
Venue: Tower Theatre, The CUB Malthouse
Dates: 7 Jul – 26 Jul, 2009
Times: Tuesdays 7pm, Wednesday – Saturdays 8pm, Sunday 19 July 5.30pm, Sunday 26 July 5pm
Matinees: Thursday 16 July at 1.30pm, Saturday 25 July at 2.30pm
Tickets: $15 - $30 + booking fee
Bookings: www.malthousetheatre.com.au | 9685 5111