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Thinking pop culture

Three Little Words and Best Self Nonsense

Tess (Catherine McClements), an editor who can’t spell - an implausible premise but just go with it - has decided to leave her marriage to Curtis (Peter Houghton), a man who incomprehensibly transitions from über feminist to calling women heifers in under two hours.

Their marriage is apparently good - regular sex, mutual respect - but tired of being defined as a half of a duo, Tess wants out. She wants to find her “best self”.

Joanna Murray-Smith’s play Switzerland - about novelist Patricia Highsmith living alone in the Alps - was one of the best things I saw in 2016. So great was it in fact, that I re-watched The Talented Mr. Ripley soon after just to make the experience last a little longer. Three Little Words however, was dreadful. I hated it. Had there been an interval I’d have cut my losses and pushed my way out of the theatre Costanza-style.

I was - it’s important to note - apparently all alone in my loathing. This is likely at least somewhat attributable to a distinctly Melbourne phenomenon where people attend MTC plays and arthouse films and seat themselves with complete and utter conviction that they’ll be dazzled. For such folks, no matter what is put in front of them they’ll be excessive emoting. That said, as I stood on Dodds Street waiting for an Uber afterwards, duos and trios exited the theatre gushing - seemingly with genuine conviction - about how superb it all was. Had I not paid over $100 for my ticket I’d probably hate them less, but hey, let’s not taint this discussion with money.

(The best bit of the play, incidentally, was the completely illogical inclusion of Sonic Youth’s cover of “Superstar” which made me have a little cry, chased away quickly by utter bewilderment at how such a good song could be included in such malarkey. But I digress).

Sonic Youth, “Superstar” (first recorded in 1994)

There was much for me to dislike about the play, but the bit that bristled most was Tess’s “best self” quest. What on earth does this mean?

I’ll be upfront and say I have a relatively strong aversion to the self-help industry. While I’ll half-heartedly try not to judge you for owning a copy of a Eat Pray Love, I’ll fail. And don’t get me started on the crystals and the cupping and the cleanses. Live and let live, sure, but I harbour high level… confusion…that the same people who so detest Christian evangelists somehow manage to be enthused about capitalist deities like Pete Evans, Sarah Wilson and David Avo-bloody-cado Wolfe.

Underlying my “best self” umbrage is the singular: who has only the one self to make best? We’re each a bundle of contradictory and hypocritical selves depending on context, on company: which self, then, is being bedazzled here?

And how exactly are we defining “best”? How have we gotten to this point in the story of human evolution where “best” has come to centre almost exclusively on a preoccupation with the self? How has channelling a deluge of resources into indulging individual whims become an aspirational, if not almost transcendental state? How damn good must the PR to make “best” sound so much more palatable than “narcisstic”?

I’ve written previously about my aversion to the ceaseless procession of films and books about people going off to “find themselves”. The idea is a cliché. And I wanted Three Little Words to acknowledge this; to, at the very least, unpack Tess’s “yearning” - one potent enough for her to leave her marriage - and to expose it for what it is. Instead, the “best self” idea is just verbalised and is then just left for the audience to interpret. Is it any more meaningful then, than a guru-istic way of saying we should be thinner, be healthier, be more fuckable, be younger - i.e., messages that are already completely inescapable in this culture? I doubt it.

It’s sketchy to hate a play for all the things it wasn’t; Murray-Smith had a vision that wasn’t shared by me and that should be fine. Fine theoretically at least. It just feels less so when so much time and money were the cost.

Playing at Southbank Theatre until the 27th of May.

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