Book: The Performance
Author: Claire Thomas
The Performance is the second novel from Claire Thomas after the prize-winning Fugitive Blue, which was printed in 2008 and reprinted in 2021. She is currently working on a third.
Three women are in the audience watching Samuel Beckett play “Happy Days” – a much praised absurdist stream of consciousness which is profound, and certainly without much action (which I have not seen).
Happy Days, written in 1961, is a play in two acts, and a two-hander. Some say it’s among the best plays of all time. I don’t think it has ever come to WA.
At the beginning of the play, Winnie is buried from the waist up in a mound of earth on a stage lit with bright light and a background of tawdry-looking sky and earth. She is exposed to the sun and has a large black bag with objects connected to memories. She talks to herself and is optimistic but has to work hard to keep positive, and frequently says “oh this is a happy day” as she continues to be submerged in the earth mound. Willie, the other character, is a stooge who crawls around the stage and only has one word in the seconds act.
At the beginning of the book, bushfires are raging, as they were in Victoria in February 2020, the year the book was published.
Three women in the audience are very different personalities and at different stages of life who meet during the interval.
Margot, an ageing literature professor with a fading career, married for 40 years to a surgeon who has dementia, and who has physically abused her. She has one son and does not get on with him or his Asian wife.
Ivy, a wealthy philanthropist who is uncomfortable with the life that comes with patronage in having to deal with fawning money recipients. A baby cot-death in her first marriage was followed by binge drinking and drugs, until she was left a lot of money by family friends who had no children.
And Summer, an indigenous aspiring actor doing a drama degree, who is a lesbian usher employed by the theatre – who has anxiety. She has a relationship with April, a tattooist, who is on her way to help her parents and a dog called Woolf, in danger from the bushfires raging in the hills.
In a cleverly constructed scenario, Winnie, in the play, searches for meaning in life while she slowly disintegrates until she is a talking head buried in a mound of rubbish.
At the same time the three characters ruminate on the many and sometimes repeated thoughts that go through their minds, which are similar to current concerns about climate change, pollution, terrorism, relationships – a world in crisis.
In the minds of the forced intimacy of strangers in the theatre, the play mirrors the uncertainties of life.
The book is, in my opinion, clever contempory writing and an easy read. The characters are believable and reflect the issues of today – and how art and memory can change us.