The Joy of Text | Melbourne Theatre CompanyAround 1995/1996 two books grabbed the attention of Australians. The First Stone, written by Helen Garner, was a book about the scandal some three years earlier involving two Melbourne college girls who accused the head at a University residential college of indecent assault. The other was The Hand That Signed the Paper by Helen Demidenko. Demidenko was a woman of Ukrainian-Irish ancestry whose book was about a woman of similar decent, and her Ukrainian family’s experience during the Holocaust.

The identity of the authors of the books, and in these instances therefore that of the books’ narrators, proved crucial in their reception. Garner was a feminist, but the treatment of the events by the narrator of her book, and therefore the author herself, was seen to attack feminism. Demidenko’s novel on the other hand won the Miles Franklin Award, but the book’s content caused many debates amongst critics and the wider public with claims that it, and therefore its author, was anti-Semitic. Later, it would be the author herself that caused a scandal. Helen Demidenko it was revealed, was in fact Helen Darville, and her claims of Ukrainian heritage were false. With the true background and identity of the author revealed, the validity of the content of the book was instantly questioned.

It is in part the events surrounding these two books, and what would happen if they were combined, that forms the basis of what playwright Robert Reid refers to as his “mash-up” otherwise known as The Joy of Text. Along the way, the play touches on the forms and objectives of various texts and narratives, various readings of these, how readers separate truth and fiction, and how society and the law deal with issues such as inappropriate relationships between students and teachers. Rather disappointingly however the result is a play that is little more than Reid’s own description.

The Joy of Text takes place in an Australian high school. Designer Andrew Bailey has exercised attention to detail, creating a set that is instantly familiar. It is based around a concrete quadrangle, formed on the furthest two sides by two wings of a multi-level school building, linked by a flight of stairs. The rooms of the buildings are floating, metal-framed boxes that are open at the front rather like the rooms in a dollhouse. There is the stage of the auditorium, the teacher’s offices, the photocopy room, a classroom, the library, and student lockers. Rather cleverly, Bailey has mixed this fairly naturalistic scene with a bicycle that appears to be pixellated. This pixellation is repeated on two walls, as though the scene is part videogame or screen image. It is a reminder of the invasion of modern technology on the more traditional space of learning, a concept that is reiterated throughout the play.

The four characters in this work are all are fairly one-dimensional stereotypes, and are as exaggerated in their mannerisms as their characterisation. Steve (Peter Houghton) is a daggy, middle-aged science teacher who has, somewhat by accident, and much to his delight, found himself in the position of Acting Principal following the sudden departure of the school’s head (who Reid has named Helen, one assumes in homage to the women whose works have in part inspired this play). Diane (Louise Siversen) is another teacher of a similar age and temperament, with a penchant for exercising bazaar dance moves to the music of her ghetto blaster before class. Of the four characters, these two are certainly likeable and in some ways recognisable.

The other two characters are more problematic. Ami (Helen Christinson) is a Doc Marten wearing literature teacher in her early thirties. One cannot fathom how she qualified to become a secondary school teacher. Overnight, the apparently responsible adult seems to revert to a sulky, tempestuous teenager. Regardless of the circumstances surrounding this, the dramatic transformation is unbelievable. Then there’s Danny, (James Bell), a fairly dorky but rather precocious, seventeen year old student whose father has taken to sleeping in the family car and whose mother is on sedatives. We are never privy to Danny’s relationship with his fellow students – they are depicted only via background noise and student announcements over the loudspeaker. From this it seems unlikely that Danny has many friends, but it therefore seems rather incongruous that he would display such cheek and self-assurance in the interaction with his teachers, and his public display of the games he plays with the lives of others.

Reid has based the events in this play around its own controversial book, The Illusion of Consent, written by a schoolgirl who recounts the story of her relationship with a male teacher. Following the book’s publication, the girl at its centre runs away and some fifteen or so years down the track, her whereabouts are still unknown. But when a copy of the book finds itself in Danny’s hands, its claim of a sexual relationship between a student and a teacher will become inextricably linked to a new claim of a similar nature, and the whereabouts of the book’s author, as well as the truth behind the book itself, will be revealed.

The specifics of this interconnectedness are contrived and unsurprising. Soon after beginning to read The Illusion of Consent, Danny suggests that he has been having a sexual relationship with one of his teachers. The teacher, unsurprisingly, is Ami. About this time, Danny recognises similarities in the voice of the narrator of the book with that of Ami and eventually of course, they are revealed to be one and the same. Also unsurprisingly, Danny’s claim about the nature of his relationship with Ami is finally revealed to be the product of his own creation of fiction, and a demonstration of irony, rather than the truth. One assumes that to a certain extent, this is also intended to be the point of the construction of Reid’s play, but given that the very scenarios presented in the play were not believable in the first place, in both senses this comes across as an empty proclamation.

Director Aidan Fennessy has obviously told the actors to go to town, and with the characters that have been written there is little else that they can do. That said, Houghton and Siversen embody their characters whilst displaying subtlety where allowed to do so. Admittedly they have been given more to work with in their characters than Christinson and Bell, but their younger counterparts need to work on the delivery of their dialogue. Their stiltedness brings little credibility to the few more emotive or meaningful scenes in which they feature.

It is difficult to know what this play is actually hoping to achieve. It depicts stereotypical, unrecognisable characters, and highly unlikely coincidences. The complexities that really surround such issues as sexual assault and inappropriate relationships between teachers and students are not even mildly explored.

If anything, the play seems to be leaning towards satire. The character of Danny himself states something along the lines of satire being used to make an issue “so small that we’re not afraid to confront it.” There are certainly plenty of attempts at humour in this play – a few lines are even very funny – but satire works by expressing a deeper, more profound meaning than that which is on the surface, and this can only be achieved if the audience has first been able to identify and connect with what they are being presented. This play trivialises its issues to such an extent that when there is any hint of a deeper meaning or irony presented, the audience is certainly not afraid to confront it; by that stage they don’t even care to do so.

On paper, the concepts within this play – the reading of texts, and how a reader’s judgement of these can be altered and often enriched with a knowledge of the context in which they were written, and by whom they were written, and the possibility of misrepresentation, and a clouding of truth and fiction amidst this – are all interesting. In a sense it doesn’t matter what genre, if any, this play may or may not fit into, or even what the playwright is ultimately setting out to achieve. However, one can’t help but think back to Demidenko’s The Hand That Signed the Paper. Before the discovery that this story was not entirely true, at least in the form that people expected, the book provoked consideration and discussion. It only caused the stir that it did because people were initially drawn to the characters, the content, and the form in which it was presented. People were invested in the text – they actually cared about it. There was, between the book and its readers, a connection, something that is sadly missing between Reid’s play and its audience.

MTC presents
The Joy of Text
by Robert Reid

Director Aidan Fennessy

Venue: The Arts Centre, Fairfax Studio | 100 St Kilda Rd, Melbourne
Dates: 10 June – 23 July, 2011
Bookings: | 8688 0800