Is There Something Wrong With That Lady by Debra Oswald. Ensemble Theatre, Sydney, September 18 – October 14 2023.
First produced by Griffin Theatre Company, 13 – 24 April 2021 at the SBW Stables Theatre.
Reviewed by Frank McKone
Director – Lee Lewis; Associate Director – Nell Ranney
Set & Costume Designer – Jeremy Allen
Lighting Designer – Matt Cox
Original lighting designer for the Griffin production – Benjamin Brockman
Sound Designer – Jessica Dunn; Video Realiser – Daniel Herten
Stage Manager – Bronte Schuftan; Costume Supervisor – Renata Beslik
My experience teaching and directing high school drama students, now many decades ago, taught me an invaluable lesson. This was expressed by dancer, mime and theatre arts teacher, Anton Witsel OAM, Ordre des Arts et Lettres, Tchaikovski Medal, in this way: “In the theatre you can always fall flat on your face.” He meant it literally as well as metaphorically. Any kind of performing drama is a risk.
Hayes Gordon, founder of Ensemble Theatre, spoke of “acting acting” as a risk, and for some actors as a danger.
So I found watching writer Debra Oswald performing herself a bit disturbing. She is not “in character”, yet she works to a script and has presented this story since its beginning at Griffin Theatre in 2021. She ‘stands up”, but is not a comedian. Some of what she says makes people laugh, but they are not jokes.
She ends with a loving tribute to her ever-faithful husband, and dog. But what if he (the husband) has begun to feel that she is using him, even monetising their love? Perhaps he might, considering her quite explicit stories of her sexual behaviour in younger times.
In my role as critic, I am left with ethical questions. Should I judge the show as nothing but entertainment, succeeding in making people laugh? Should I praise her open honesty about what it is to be a writer in a gig economy (the only kind of economy in the arts)? How do I know, though, if all she has said is true?
After all, I am aware of how often my memories and what I thought were truths have been coloured by later events and changing needs. When I almost formally interviewed my mother, aged 85, soon after my father had died at the same age, we each had forgotten events that the other remembered as certain. And there were secrets kept on both sides.
For a reasonable critical evaluation of a public paying-for show, I need to consider the purpose which the author may have had in mind and whether the production successfully achieved that intention. But what is Debra Oswald’s intention, as both the writer and performer?
Is it meant to be a revelation with wider implications than her merely personal story? Is it meant to give her status as a performer; so should I judge her acting skills? Is it meant to be a homily of resilience, her ‘doggedness’, which we should take to heart?
So Oswald herself explains in a Writer's Note, “I’ve been around a while – making a living as a writer for over 40 years – and I wondered if the perspective of a bruised old dame might be of interest to people. So, I wrote this show as my late-onset stage debut. My aim is to be embarrassingly candid about myself, sometimes amusing, honest about the highs and lows of being an Australian writer, and hopefully to extract wisdom from the Ensemble audience about what I should do next.”
So – I was interested in bits and pieces of the story; I was embarrassed by some of her candidness about very intimate experiences; there were some amusing asides and one or two genuinely funny stories; I did feel some sympathy for the lows in her writing life and appreciated the highs.
But as for wisdom I can’t offer much beyond Thank your Lucky Stars if you haven’t yet fallen flat on your face. Writing and performing this show was certainly taking a theatrical risk.