When I read Charlotte Wood’s brilliant novel, The Weekend, a few years ago, there was much discussion about the fact that the story focused on the inner lives of ‘older’ women, and that this is largely ignored in contemporary literature. At the time, I didn’t think it was but nor could I easily name any solid examples to prove otherwise. So, when I read Claire Thomas’s novel, The Performance, I realised it had been a long time between drinks.
The story focuses on one night in a Melbourne theatre. As bushfires rage on the city fringe, three women attend a performance of Beckett’s, Happy Days. Perspective rotates between the three, revealing their individual circumstances – Margot, a successful professor on the cusp of retirement, is preoccupied with her fraught relationship with her adult son and her ailing husband; Ivy, a 40-something philanthropist and mother of a toddler has a seemingly perfect life, yet it belies her grief and insecurities; and Summer, a young drama student, and usher at the theater, is plagued by anxiety, and is frantically worried for her girlfriend whose parents live in the fire zone.
There are many layers to this book. The obvious is the parallel between Beckett’s Winnie, who is stuck, buried to her waist in a mound of earth under the blazing sun, and each of the women, who are buried in their own, less literal kind of mounds. The problems for each woman – feelings of isolation, sense of security, being taken ‘seriously’, uncertainty about the future – are presented plainly but, as the story progresses, the detail and peculiarities of their anxieties are revealed.
Despite what her teenage self might think, Summer is not effortlessly cool. She is not effortlessly anything. Performing in the right way each day is exhausting her.
Summer’s observation is equally applicable to the other women, ‘performing’ in their own way, for different ‘audiences’. Margot reflects on her authenticity as a wife and mother, and Ivy’s newfound wealth and what that allows her access to, hints at feelings of being an imposter. The women’s circumstances highlight age-old questions about purpose, happiness, and what constitutes success.
On stage, Winnie’s constant cheerful chatter and incessant fiddling with the contents of her handbag, despite her dire circumstances, sets the scene for various off-stage dichotomies – the chilled air-conditioned theatre in contrast to the blazing heat outside; Margot’s appearance of control while hiding shameful bruises; Ivy’s joy in her toddler, alongside her grief for her first baby.
The sorrow does not feel many years ago. It hasn’t matured or lost intensity…
And as Ivy finds herself crying unexpectedly, she wishes she were more in control of ‘…the tenuous boundary between what is concealed and what is not.’
What is concealed and what is not is cleverly exposed in Thomas’s structuring of the story – during the play’s intermission, the women cross paths in the foyer, their carefully constructed facades back in place. I enjoyed the change of pace the intermission scene provided, and it gave weight to the dualities of each character.
Thomas’s writing is in exactly the style I like – precise but rich with feeling. This is a book that could be gulped down in one sitting but I recommend taking it slowly, to savour each well-crafted layer.
Summer – She cannot discern what to care about the most. She cares too much about all the things. She votes in elections – there have been a few in her adult life – after extensive policy research and reading. But even then she has been swayed by a candidate whose look she liked, who didn’t seem to be an arsehole, even if their record on live sheep exports was a bit patchy.
4/5 Surely a strong contender for the Stella Prize.
Of the two men sitting next to Ivy –
They both look freshly scrubbed. They both looked like they’d done several laps of a heritage-listed outdoor pool late in the afternoon before dressing for the theatre while sipping a well-iced Tom Collins. No trace of chlorine or sunscreen remained on their persons. just a strong peppery juniper smell.