One has to wonder when we’ll be able to see a play featuring the overweight or obese when the central conflict of the story has nothing to do with their weight.
Beached, currently at Griffin, is a well-structured piece that plays with real-time camera feeds as a reality TV/doco-style story. The performers are capable, clever, and it’s well-paced and well-directed.
It’s just a little disappointing.
Today, about seventy per cent of Australia’s population is overweight. These people are, in general, not defined by this. Yes, Beached is the story of a morbidly obese young adult, but by exhibiting extremes, we lose a little of the character’s humanity. We lose a little of the opportunity for overweight actors to play love interests, existential crisis-havers, crime-solvers, whatever the story is. We lose again the opportunity for someone who looks like the majority of people to become a protagonist.
Maybe that’s what rankles about Beached: Arthur is a central focus of the play, but it’s not his story. He’s not the protagonist; he’s a device, a catalyst for the rest of the action, for a chance to explore tabloid journalism, entrenched classism, loneliness in the world of the ‘average’ life. It’s the story the reality TV team are creating around him. It’s the story of the Centrelink caseworker assigned to his transition back into the working world.
It’s the story of his distance from reality, not his reality.
It’s possible to be a scathing indictment of reality TV and humanise the target of the cameras, which Beached seems at times to do – we are often treated to the life that Arthur’s living inside his head – the richness of his imagination, unconfined and free. We see his sweeping romance with caseworker Louise from within that same imagination. But that’s all we know.
Blake Davis brings a sunny naiveté to the role that’s fun to watch but seems disconnected from the terror his impending, possibly life-threatening, gastric bypass – and the drastically different life that awaits him post-weight loss.
His mother JoJo – a compelling Gia Carides – is more sharply drawn, a good old bogan mother with hints of her own problems to explain her tendency towards Munchausen’s. She fills the stage with the kind of gusto that makes it impossible to look away.
Arka Das is just as magnetic as the ruthless reality producer. He’s slimy and energetic and helps carry the momentum of the piece on his bounding feet.
Kate Mulvany as the mousy, driven, anti-social Louise is carefully damaged but a little too two-dimensional; Mulvany does her best and elicits a lot of laughs, though it’s a shame most of those are just unapologetic fat jokes.
Beached is, all told, a solid play. I just wish it were something else – that it went a little deeper. That Arthur was just as well-developed as the characters around him. Still, perhaps this will open doors and encourage new kinds of stories: stories that talk about who we are without relying on shocking extremes, even if only to parody them.