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Book review: Claire Thomas’s The Performance triggers burning questions

Book review: The Performance by Claire Thomas.

Theatre and its constant recreation, allows for the possibility of the political. Sometimes this is manufactured by directors as they place a loaded question on stage. Sometimes it occurs as an unexpected interruption to the usual flow of a performance.

Claire Thomas explores the possibility of both in her new novel The Performance.

Historically, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (1953) has been a rallying point for theatre practitioners and audiences living through a state of crisis: waiting through incarceration, dispossession, racial segregation, or the wake of environmental disaster.

But what if our waiting for tomorrow succumbs to an earth that waits for no one?

At the centre of The Performance is another Beckett drama, Happy Days (1961).

Winnie’s tangential recollections and gestures on stage reverberate into the perspectives and memories of three complex women stuck in the auditorium, watching the play: Margot, the world-weary professor with a theatre subscription; Ivy, the philanthropist lured to donate more money through the offer of free tickets; and Summer, the usher working under duress.

The Performance book cover

The audience watches Winnie as the earth increasingly swallows her, and her terminal happiness. Happy Days is a play adequate to contemporary times: the sixth mass extinction.

The Performance is set against Australia’s bushfire season. Just as Winnie’s parasol catches alight in Happy Days, there is the latent hazard the cool theatre could go up flames. As Ivy watches the play, she thinks: “Climate change is the key moral question of the age”.

And yet, as Thomas explores through her characters, what about those who are not scientists, engineers, policy makers, experts, activists and politicians directly involved in the challenge of global warming?

“The world is a swarm of need, and Ivy knows she cannot save it,” writes Thomas.

Margot, Ivy and Summer do not truly choose to watch Happy Days. It is more so their place in the theatre that night happens through their financial entanglements.

The bodily functions and reactions — ranging from disdain to intimacy — are conducted through Winnie’s words and her pace. Inseparable from this shared performance is the site and its time:

Summer is feeling worried, so worried, but she cannot work out if she’s worried about Winnie, or herself, or the blazing world outside, and where the blood is pooling or spilling at this moment, inside a certain body or beyond it.

Breathe, Summer. Remember to breathe.

Phrasing the musical

Actors and directors who collaborated with Beckett have recounted how he directed his plays for stage, television and radio in musical terms.

The voice he wrote for demanded a certain colour, accent, tone, rhythm. The cast were his instruments and elements.

Billie Whitelaw, Beckett’s favourite female actor, said Beckett “conducts me, something like a metronome”.

Of Happy Days, she mused how “terribly courageous” Winnie was.

Every day, an institutional bell rings, and life demands of Winnie one more day. One more day to apply her lipstick, play her music box, kiss her revolver, to speak in “the old style”: meagre defences in a life barely witnessed, barely there.

And when these props fail Winnie — and when her companion Willie exists only as a possibility out of sight — she sings in hope of an ear in the darkness. She holds on.

The Performance echoes Beckett’s musicality. Thomas tends to the base, cloying, funny, fragile disturbances that make theatre an imperative act. She gives breadth to her characters’ thoughts in tension to the daily performances they play in the role of mother, grandmother, friend, wife, lover, daughter.

Read more: Billie Whitelaw was one of Beckett's greatest actors – she suffered for her art

She opens up the care it takes for these characters to not leap into easy connection, to allow space for their own and a stranger’s difference. She teases out how ideals and identities fall short of life’s ambiguity.

She gently holds the inescapable paradoxes of wanting, needing and enduring in these strange-becoming-stranger times.

Dissonances of life and art

The Performance is a poetics of the political, without preaching or judgement: it triggers burning questions. This is achieved through the novel’s clever structure. Chapters are a compilation of different points of view with no character’s point winning out over the others.

These perspectives converge in the middle of the book — an interval — which then affects the chapters after.

This book itches at sore points of neoliberalism, class, privilege (and lack thereof), race and Australia’s violent colonial history, gender, sexuality, and the bruises and yearnings that join, alter, or wear away the crossing paths of strangers, friends, and family.

For the treasure hunter, motifs and fragments of visual art, drama, and fiction weave through the plot. There are gestures towards the theatre novel like Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts (1941).

And for those interested in Beckett’s biography, there are snippets of his life, body of work and Happy Days itself threaded throughout — both pointedly and hidden.

Written with passion, The Performance is a brave book: unafraid of confronting the dissonances of living in a modern Australia.

The Performance is out now through Hachette.

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