By Zoe Dawson. Darebin Arts Speakeasy and The Zoey Louise Moonbeam Dawson Shakespeare Company. Northcote Town Hall. 23 July – 6 August, 2016

Set in three time frames – early 19th century Australia, the suburban present and some kind of dog-eat-dog, dystopian future – Zoe Dawson tracks a young woman who somehow survives ‘impossible odds’ and creates… nothing.  It begins promisingly enough with some clever staging from director Declan Greene, ingenious set design from Romanie Harper hand-in-glove with Amelia Lever-Davidson’s lighting.  Caroline Lee and Ruby Hughes are Mother and Daughter, felons passing themselves off as airs-and-graces free settlers in this land of opportunity.  A puppyish, naive convict (Troy Reid) helps with the housework, but an officious Marine (Dushan Phillips) wins Daughter’s hand.  The performances are an entertaining parody of Victorian poses and attitudes, and Ms Dawson wrings more laughs from deliberate anachronisms.  The point seems to be that Daughter wants to be a writer, but never will be.  Perhaps this is Ms Dawson sending herself up – but ironically since, as we know, she is a writer with a Masters from the VCA (even if, on the basis of Conviction, you have to wonder). 

In Part 2, Ms Hughes’ character is a stay-at-home wanna-be writer, a lazy, spoiled child incompetent married to an exasperated surgeon (Mr Phillips).  This is close to television sit-com with the point again seeming to be that the wanna-be writer is wasting this opportunity too.  Just as things are looking ugly, there’s a surprise intervention by Ms Lee.  It’s a shock and it gets a laugh, but it struck me as a lazy and desperate bit of invention – especially when, in Part 3, the survivors of some catastrophe eat bits of the surgeon’s heart and liver.  There is a great deal in Conviction of that writer’s trap of ‘wouldn’t it be funny, if…’  Assemble enough ‘funny’ moments and you’ve got a comedy.  Right?

In Part 3, Mr Greene or Ms Dawson or both elect to use the full stage and pile it high with debris, including a whole car, but video the action and project it on a huge screen in black and white.  The characters are way up stage and almost invisible in darkness, the debris and a great deal of smoke – and their dialogue gets mostly lost.  (It isn’t clear who’s behind the camera – Stage Manager Kate Brennan or her assistants Rikki-Lee Butinar or Kathryn Yates – but whoever it is, her camera operation is one of the most impressive, professional elements of the evening.)  By this third stage, however, Ms Hughes’ character is blubbering and helpless, totally dependent on Ms Lee’s character – who is a ruthless, survive-at-any-cost harpy.  Mr Reid is another imperilled survivor.  The thread of the wanna-be writer is quite forgotten – or just abandoned, Ms Dawson having exhausted what little she had to say on the subject.  This murderous, blood-and-guts but quite boring sequence goes on and on and on and if there is a point to it, it is lost on me.

Opening night had a full house and I reckon a lot of the audience were people who’d crowd-funded this enterprise via Pozible.  I wonder what they thought.  I’d say they did their dough.  Some didn’t hang about for drinks and nibbles: they fled into the night.

After the sharp observation, satire and wit of Ms Dawson’s deservedly award winning The Unspoken Word is Joe (graced also with a superb, award winning comic performance from her), I could scarcely believe I was watching this self-indulgent random assembly of random ideas from the same writer.  Given his credits, Mr Greene, as dramaturg as well as director, should know better and do better than this.

In a self-serving program note, Ms Dawson speaks of ‘the well-made play’ – i.e. don’t expect that tired old convention from her – and she plays the feminist card: ‘As a society we don’t seem terribly comfortable with women who take up too much space… women who attempt to publicly self-mythologise and self-define have never been more powerful and more hated.’  Right.  So if we don’t love this tiresome mess with all our hearts – as Ms Dawson hopes we will - it’s our fault because we’re uncomfortable with women who take up too much space and some of us (me, obviously) are misogynist as well.  ‘The Zoey Louise Moonbeam Dawson Shakespeare Company was established,’ says the program, ‘to produce the work of Zoey Dawson and other mouthy bitches, with an emphasis on redirecting the potency of women in canonical texts.’  I’ve no problem with that aim whatsoever – just the way it is pursued in Conviction.

Michael Brindley

Photographer: Pia Johnson

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