Monday, October 26, 2015

The Art of Teaching Nothing by Kirsty Budding

The Art of Teaching Nothing by Kirsty Budding.  Free Rain Theatre Company: directed and designed by Cate Clelland; lighting and sound by Joel Edmondson; costumes by Fiona Leach.  Courtyard Studio, Canberra Theatre Centre, October 22-25, 2015.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
October 25

This is a new locally written play about which I find myself in several minds.  It’s certainly about the business of being a teacher, set definitively in the government school system as opposed to any private school.  And clearly in the Canberra jurisdiction.

Its title has an element of foreboding which comes to fruition in the final scenes.

But it’s the author’s intention in writing the play that is not clear to me. 

Some parts are farcical – and there’s nothing wrong with farce which is funny for the sake of being funny.  That’s a well established theatre genre.

Some parts are comedy with ironic material as, for example, an incompetent Level 2 English Faculty head Clara (Elaine Noon) who has had a longstanding sexual relationship with the Principal Julian (Rob De Fries) finds herself promoted even further above her level of incompetency into a sinecure administrative position in Head Office.  There are several other similar situations as the play progresses.  The complete nonentity Deputy Principal George (Arran McKenna) is used as a comic foil in most situations.

Some scenes, though, are anything but comedy.  A particularly nasty one is where the woman Head of Student Services, Bronwyn (Emma Wood) – in charge of everything, especially staffing (Human Resources) – and the newly promoted woman Level 2 English Faculty head, Steph (Marti Ibrahim) attack the recently appointed young woman teacher, Lucy (Glynis Stokes) on personal grounds such as her youth and beauty.  It isn’t that this couldn’t happen when jealousy raises its ugly head, but the intensity and viciousness of the scene was quite out of line with both the comedy and sometimes farce of most other scenes.  I found that scene actually quite shocking, and wasn’t at all sure of how I was meant to take it.

Then again, there are quite sweet scenes. Lucy explains her background relationship with her now dead father.  The art teacher Paul (Brendan Kelly) has a similar kind of story to tell about his mother, and about his father – the Principal who has employed his son despite his having falsified  teaching qualifications.  At these points the theatrical form is anything but comedy, certainly not farce: here it strikes home as straightforward realism.  The character of the PE teacher Ray (John Kelly) seems to exist in this realist frame throughout the play, while it’s hard to place the elderly maths teacher Mary (Liz Bradley) who dies on the job.  Realistic, comic commentary, or farce?  I’m not sure.

However, finally we find that we have been taken in because these apparently genuine characters, except perhaps Ray and the now dead Mary, turn out to be frauds like all the rest.  The key point in the story is about who put the blog online which exposes the corruption of the Principal and indeed the whole process of employment and promotion.  The play becomes a whodunnit, and the answer is that the new young genuine idealistic teacher Lucy uses a bright student, Beth (Sophie Hopkins) to do the dirty work.  And even worse, Beth and Lucy turn out to be sisters.

At this point I either have to see the play as a clever piece of extreme absurdism, or perhaps it is a deeply cynical piece saying that teaching is essentially nothing more than an entirely selfish power play.  The art, indeed, of teaching absolutely nothing.  And then its deliberate setting in the government school system makes me wonder about the author’s politics, particularly in our local jurisdiction.  Am I to lightly pass off the evening’s entertainment as a bit of enjoyable fun, or should I take up the issues seriously?

One way of thinking about this is to do a thought experiment.  Imagine if this play were designed, directed and performed by, say Belvoir or Sydney Theatre Company?  Imagine then that it might be done with the absurdism of, say, Eugene Ionesco in mind.  Rhinoceros comes to mind.  Deputy Principal George in this play has a flying shark to entertain the students.  Maybe, parallel to Rhinoceros, people turn into sharks, going green and floating about – except perhaps for the Artist, Paul, who refuses.  He has done the right thing by Lucy after all, just as Berenger does his best to save Daisy.  Paul almost gives in and accepts the corruption, but perhaps like Berenger his last line should be “I’m not capitulating!”

I can see such a possibility, but it would mean much more work on the script and its style of presentation for The Art of Teaching Nothing to educate us about conformity and corruption as Ionesco achieved.  That’s a worthy aim for Kirsty Budding.



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