Left - Jason Klarwein
I just saw Thom Pain (based on nothing). But I'm not actually sure what I saw. More importantly, I'm not really sure if I liked it or not. A man stood on stage and told me stories for around an hour. Some of them made me laugh, some of them made me feel worried and disturbed. It wasn't stand-up and it wasn't really a play. It mainly left me feeling confused. And I obviously wasn't the only one. Some audience members felt so strongly about it that they got up and left right in the middle of it. The man next to me fell asleep...
Since I can't say how I felt about it, it's obviously rather hard to write a review. So, I think the best thing to do is tell you what to expect if you see Thom Pain. That way, you may still be confused, but at least you'll be prepared to be confused.
It's a one-man play written by Will Eno that's been performed in London, New York and Edinburgh, where it won the Fringe Award. It's been celebrated as exceptional experiemental theatre, but in the program notes (which I strongly suggest you read before you go in) playwright Will Eno rejects the idea of Thom Pain being an experiment in playwriting. He says: "I guess I just think of it as a play. Or, to be honest, more of a 'thing', I guess...I don't know."
With the playwright cultivating such an interesting, almost apathetic attitude, you can expect his work to keep you guessing, to never answers all your questions, to raise your expectations of what is going to happen next and then purposely never delivers on its promises. But at the same time as you're on this rollercoaster ride, you can't help but notice just how beautiful Eno's writing is. At one point, talking about the woman who he loved and lost, Thom (Jason Klarwein) says: "I disappeared in her and she, wondering where I went, left.” It's a gorgeous phrase, one that shows Thom's vulnerability and makes you warm to him.
But Eno also ensures that you're constantly in doubt about Thom's reliability as a narrator. At one point he announces that it's time for the raffle and that he hopes everyone has kept their ticket stubs because that's how we'll find the winning number. Then he says there is no raffle. And even when audience members walked out right in the middle of his performance, Klarwein never breaks his flow, blithely wishing them "au revoir" and assuring us that they will be safer at home anyway. So is Klarwein a brilliant actor who was deeply embedded in his character? Were these audience members planted, all part of the act? Or did they genuinely despise it so much that they couldn't sit through another minute? The only way I'd know was if I went to see it again, and I don't think I could do it.
Because director Jon Halpin and design consultant Josh McIntosh have intentionally made this a very uncomfortable viewing experience. The sparseness of the stage is overwhelming. There's no set, no lighting (well, there are lights, but I really don't think that counts), no sound at all. There's no real costume design except Thom's quite nice looking black suit.
All the focus is on the man on stage and his stories: of a dead dog, the end of childhood, the loss of love, bees, sex and just how short life is. And while he's telling you these sometimes beautiful, sometimes depressing, sometimes horrifying things, all his attention is focused on YOU. He doesn't just talk to you, he talks at you, making eye contact and directly addressing members of the audience (especially in the first couple of rows). He draws us into the narrative, he asks questions that he really seems to expect an answer to, he falls in love with a woman in the second row, he wants us to become the second character in his show.
I can't deny that Klarwein is brilliant in this role. His Thom is equal parts sympathetic and abrasive, a character in whom we can see the best and worst parts of ourselves, even if we don't want to. Eno says he intends for audiences to like Thom, but he knows that what we hope for and what happens in real life are two different things. But Klarwein does make his Thom likeable, perhaps even charming in an extremely strange way, which I think is a huge achievement.
So, I liked parts of the writing, I thought the acting was beautiful and I could see exactly why the director did things the way he did. I guess you could say that I liked it. But I really don't know.
Queensland Theatre Company presents
Thom Pain (based on nothing)
by Will Eno
Director Jon Halpin
Venue: Bille Brown Studio, 78 Montague Road South Brisbane
Dates: 15 March – 10 April, 2010
Tickets: $36 - $56, Under 30: $30
Bookings: QTIX 136 246 | www.qldtheatreco.com.au