Sunday, October 16, 2011

Death by Television

I find television to be very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go in the other room and read a book. – Groucho Marx

In a week where mass media reported on the authenticity of Beyonce’s baby bump along with the imprisonment and lashing of an Iranian actress for her role in an Australian film, Death by Television was a reminder of the absurd and dehumanising nature of television. Don’t get me wrong, I am one of the 96% of Australians who own at least one television, but it’s a bit like that third or fourth glass of wine; you know that it’s bad for you but you still partake.

Death by Television was presented as part of the Festival of New Tasmanian Theatre at the Backspace Theatre, Hobart. The black comedy began as a shorter work at the 2006 Melbourne Fringe, when Briony Kidd collaborated with fellow writer Sarah Robertson. Kidd reworked the production as part of the Tasmanian Theatre Company’s Associate Artists program. Kidd, who describes herself as a recovering TV addict, has delivered a work that explores the negative effects of television. This is certainly not a new theme to either theatre or film. Many would remember Videodrome, the 1983 film directed by David Cronenburg and starring James Woods and Deborah Harry (Blondie).

The potential for Death by Television to be an engaging visual narrative was certainly there, but it just didn’t seem to take full advantage of this fertile subject or the medium. The opening scene is the catalyst for the entire play when lead character Phineas (Campbell McKenzie) and his mate Teddy (Matt Wilson) are part of the live audience at a talkback show. Prompted by the auto cues to laugh, at very unlaughable moments, Phineas contracts a condition later identified as Schoenberg’s Syndrome which scrambles his emotional responses. While the audience does certainly get a sense of the awkwardness of such prompting, the scene needed to be stronger, louder and punchier to really convince us of the impact on Phineas and establish the premise for the whole play.

A tenacious solicitor and her psychiatrist cohort try to convince Phineas to sue the television network responsible for his affliction and Phineas is torn between taking the money or exposing the truth; much like a game show. While the staging and effects enhanced the story, it seemed a missed opportunity to not include images along with the audio sampling. There was a lack of light and shade to the work. I wanted the sound to be louder and partnered with images from talk shows and popular culture. This could have distracted from the frequent scene changes and also added more colour and variation to the work; with the audience experiencing the sensory assault that is…
Television, the drug of the Nation, Breeding ignorance and feeding radiation…The Disposable Heroes of Hypocrisy 1990

Kidd is the writer, director and co-producer, which is a tough gig. Death by Television may have benefited from the guiding hand of a director, as this would have afforded Kidd more time to refine the script which at times was clever, funny and poignant. The lack of consistency would have been eliminated with further editing.

Campbell McKenzie (Phineas) and Sara Pensalfini (Evelyn) were the most consistent in their performances. McKenzie’s fate, which was particularly well portrayed, could have been a more effective closing to the show.

Death by Television was presented by Hobart Pavement Projects.

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