Going Down is Michele Lee’s story of driven millennial Natalie (Catherine Davies), a Hmong (“the Asians in Gran Torino”) woman who’s penned a memoir about her sexual adventures. The play, directed by Leticia Cáceres, opens with Natalie doing a book reading to an audience of three old dears at the Nagambie public library. The reading doesn’t go well as the excepts involve more sexual detail than the locals can cope with. Nagambie aside, Natalie hopes that Banana Girl is a sleeper – it made the Moreland Leaders’ list of Top Ten Summer Reads, after all.
Natalie – and Lee – want the world to know there is more to a girl than her family background. The literary world wants Asian pity porn, stories of families informed by cultural and geographical displacement, tales of tragedy followed by worldly successes once they settle in Australia. Unfortunately for Natalie, her memoir is eclipsed by a book by released at the same time, by Asian Muslim writer Lulu Jayardi (Jenny Lee, who also plays Natalie’s mother), providing just that. Guess which book sells?
With the apparent support of her besties (Paul Blenheim and Naomi Rukavina) Natalie decides to go for even more shock value and write a book called 100 Cocks in 100 Days. The research factor is fun but as Jayardi’s star ascends, Natalie becomes abject at moments (which are never less than funny) trying to work out what her own story really is. The protagonist and antagonist are both given somewhere to travel to while on their respective character arcs; Natalie’s involves leaping exuberantly from one penis to the next. (Unapologetic lustiness in a female character is always welcome.)
Going Down was commissioned by the Malthouse and won the 2015 Malcolm Robertson prize. Lee’s mash-up of the personal, political and professional works well; there are no strains of self-pity or self-indulgence underpinning the work, although her character splashes loudly about in both these puddles. Lee makes Natalie’s undignified moments comical, even when she’s being downright unpleasant, as in a conversation with her mixed-race friend who enjoys a background of middle-class privilege. Davies is hilarious and compelling. The supporting cast, including a very funny Josh Price (standing out as overly respectful fan of Jayardi’s in the Wheeler Centre scene), is excellent, playing a selection of acutely observed Melbourne types: clubbers, baristas, bar staff, and lemonade selling Toorak rapsters.
Slapstick and verbal wit pulled together with impeccable direction and comic timing make for a witty piss take of Melbourne’s literary world, so familiar to its audience. The observations and jabs are delightful. The play lampoons this city’s bookish and hipster life with verve and sharpness but always with heart.
The play is concerned with ’ethnic identity’ but also speaks to the nature of storytelling. Small stories of less dramatic lives are equally worthy of our attention, even if they don’t sell as many books. There’s always something more important than fame and commercial success – for a storyteller, for any of us, true, small stories are the ones that count.
The plot comes to rest with some old-fashioned wisdom, a tidy resolution which is nearly twee but not. Caceres’ direction is spot on, managing the shifts in emotional tenor. The ending involving Natalie’s reconciliation with her family and background risked being mawkish but is handled with the right tone so that the seeming contradiction within the story, where Natalie does need to engage with her cultural heritage after all, makes sense. Responsibilities when they come, are welcome.
Set design supports the energy of the story with a sliding bed, staging happening on different levels and includes a lovely use of projections of hand drawn fonts and images – right on point as they say. Going Down is a production fizzing with energy, pinging, zipping, popping, tight as a drum.
Malthouse Theatre presents
by Michele Lee
Director Leticia Cáceres
Venue: Beckett Theatre | The Coopers Malthouse, 113 Sturt Street Southbank, VIC
Dates: 10 May – 3 June 2018
Bookings: malthousetheatre.com.au | (03) 9685 5111
A Malthouse Theatre and Sydney Theatre Company production