In an article published in The Age last week, journalist Amy Corderoy reported that a study conducted by researchers at Deakin University discovered morbid obesity had increased by 68 per cent between 1997 and 2008. Although the 1500 studied were from Geelong, study leader Julie Pasco, the head of the epidemiology unit for musculoskeletal and metabolic disorders at Deakin University, said the patterns seen were likely to be occurring across the country.
The online article triggered a rash of comments, many of them unkind, blaming and shaming the overweight. This isn’t a new thing and certainly as the “obesity epidemic” continues to grow, will no doubt persist. But why? Why does society demonise fat people? It’s a question that has intrigued London-based Australian playwright and screenwriter Melissa Bubnic and she explores this in her new play, Beached. The dark satire won the Patrick White Playwrights’ Award in 2010 and next Tuesday will be making its world premiere at Southbank Theatre, The Lawler for the Melbourne Theatre Company.
Damien Sunners plays Arty, the teenager so obese he has been chair-bound for the past three years. Free, life-saving surgery is offered to him, but the catch is it’s all to be filmed for Shocking Fat Stories.
“Because the play is about an obese 19-year-old who goes on a reality television show to lose all the weight, we thought we would make the reality television show manifest in the space, so the theatre becomes the television studio,” explains director Petra Kalive. Playing the “completely gross” TV show producer is Anthony Ahern, and he will control that world, cutting to or zooming in on action, which the theatre audience will see as either live-feed or pre-recorded segments. Multi-media is also used in the play to represent lonely Arty’s fantasy world.
“Because he can't get out of his chair, (he) disappears into his head to an imagined world and so we’ve created that imagined world with the use of animation,” says Kalive. In his mind, which is inspired by both television and comic books, he is an explorer, an adventurer, a movie devilishly handsome star. “Sometimes he’s going down the Nile, other times he’s a prisoner of war, he really makes himself the hero in all of his imaginings,” says Kalive, who has directed previously for the MTC, as well as Arena Theatre Company, Complete Works Theatre Company and Monash University Performing Arts Program.
“So we’ve got three worlds operating at once: the world of the producer, we’ve got this imagined world of Arty’s mind and we’ve also got the real world of what’s actually happening on stage,” she says.
Rounding out the cast are Susie Dee, playing Arty’s well-meaning but over-protective mother and Fanny Hanusin, who is Pathways To Work officer Louise, charged with motivating Arty as he eventually finds employment in the story.
“He starts off not knowing what the world offers him and he’s stuck in this chair and he doesn’t know what’s on the outside. He loses all this weight, he gets the job, but in the end, is he any better off for the intervention of the reality television show?” says Kalive, whose own acting credits include appearing as Antonella Moran in the television series Underbelly.
To play Arty, Sunners was not required to gain weight. Instead, he spends most of the play inside a big puppet. “It’s a massive fat suit that he is manipulating and controlling underneath for basically three quarters of the play until the character loses all the weight and emerges,” she says. “It’s very hard to find a 400 kilo actor,” she says with a laugh.
Arty’s weight gain stems from being mercilessly bullied at school, but is complicated by his mother’s reaction to that. “His mother has tried to protect him, and has created a world where she herself is quite lonely and doesn’t want to lose her son and doesn’t want him to be hurt. So it speaks a little bit to that ‘helicopter parent’ who just wants the best for their child but, in doing so, their best intentions are misguided and actually do more damage than good, but not because they’re mean spirited or because they don’t want to do well and I think that’s the tragedy of this satire,” says Kalive, who previously collaborated with Bubnic co-writing the one woman show Hazel Curtis: Fear Doctor, which was about a motivational speaker who wanted to heal the world of their fear and explored society’s obsessions with gurus and quick fixes.
Similar themes are developed further in Beached, along with how obese people are treated. “Why do we consider them other? What is that about? What is it in us that makes us point and leer and jeer and sort of count them as freaks? This show really does explore that: the freak show notion of reality television and our obsession with the freak”.
BY JOANNE BROOKFIELD
Beached is currently playing as part of the Melbourne Theatre Company's Education Season at Southbank Theatre, The Lawler until Friday May 10.