Malthouse: A Social Service

Separately and together, Nicola Gunn and David Woods makes a rare type of theatre that genuinely challenges ideas and opinions. In A Social Service at Malthouse Theatre, they find a line between reality and satire that’s so sharp that a slip either side could result in serious injury.

A Social Service. David Woods & Nicola Gunn. Photo by Pia Johnson
A Social Service. David Woods & Nicola Gunn. Photo by Pia Johnson

A Social Service is about a semi-fictional artist (Gunn) who wants to affect change in a public housing estate and is confronted with the failure of the system that funds her and by her own attitudes towards change, art and the people she thinks want and need changing. Made by artists who couldn’t do the site-specific community-involved piece they wanted to do – so they had to make the work in a theatre – it’s self awareness is like the endless advertising image that has a picture of itself with a  picture of itself and so on. But somewhere in this spiral, the image changes and the downward momentum is reversed.

On the estate, “Nicola” meets a young woman (a changing cast from the Uprising Theatre collective for young people; I saw Isabel Mure, whose calmness and timing contrasted wonderfully with Gunn) making mosaic benches with the residents, and a series of men (Woods) who are wittingly and unwittingly trying to stop Nicola’s project. Based on the creators’ research of public housing in Melbourne and overseas, its story is so close to many truths – especially those about public art being used to take away public space – that the estate has to be fictional, even as it sits firmly in Melbourne.

I saw this on the post-show Time to Talk (Q&A) night and the discussion was about public housing and how public housing tenants are treated. Here’s a piece of fascinating theatre that brings up so many questions about process and performance, but the audience wanted to talk about the issues it discussed. (Apart from the woman who couldn’t hear the dialogue; Woods’s response to tell her to sit closer and be involved was perfect.) The work almost despairs about the hope of change through art, but it is resulting in a conversation about people and issues rather than one about the short-lived product that was made.

If only everyone who needs to hear this conversation this along would come along.

According to the Victorian Department of Human Services, there are nearly 35,000 people (that’s just less than half a full MCG) on the the public housing wait list. In a state of nearly six million, surely an extra 35,000 homes isn’t a hard ask; it’s a relatively small number but, 35,000 too many.

For all the passion it evokes, A Social Service is far from polemic theatre; it’s hilarious and never sways from its story to make a point. If there’s proof that comedy is just telling the truth, this is it. Gunn and Woods start with their own truths (as artists who want to make socially relevant art) and bring in the truths of people and communities they’ve met. The laughs are from self-recognition, and the people to worry about are those who don’t laugh and can’t see themselves somewhere on that stage.

Anne-Marie Peard

Anne-Marie spent many years working with amazing artists at arts festivals all over Australia. She's been a freelance arts writer for the last 10 years and teaches journalism at Monash University.

Anne-Marie Peard

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