We can make art from fat. A few years ago, Claire Crowther created Incense, a beautiful sequence of poems all about fat: the belly’s anemone secrets, clinging soapsuds of lipids. And now we have Beached, Melissa Bubnic’s play about a man who no doubt would prefer to be cruising through white horses 007-style on a motorboat, but who is told in no uncertain terms that he more resembles the beached Beluga dying on the shore. Arthur’s physical immobility and society’s reactions to it are concrete causes rather than metaphorical expressions of the fact that his life is ‘going nowhere’.
Like Heller’s Major Major Major Major, another literary character hamstrung from the start by his tautologous name (and resemblance to Henry Fonda), Arthur Arthur (James Dryden) is a blend of the showbiz and the mediocre. A grown-up child in a nest of mass-processed carbs and mass-processed cardboard, sporting a skirt of bumperpacks, he consumes food and TV whilst hungering after adventure.
After two heart-attacks and weighing 67 stone, Arthur is taking part in a TV show, Shocking Fat Stories, to raise money for a gastric bypass. Under the camera’s thrill-seeking eye, it quickly becomes clear who has been keeping him like this, putting glucose in his slimfast to sabotage his chances of surgery, desperate for a companion now everyone else has left her: his mum, Jojo (Robin Weaver). Jojo never stops vocalizing how happy food makes Arthur (and, in the same breath, how feeding lets her keep him, utterly dependent, at home), how ephemeral his happiness is (and, in the same breath, how she feeds him nonetheless). ‘Mum’/ ‘Mmm’ What’s the difference? His mum’s sausage, her pickle, her drumstick, he is a huge Christic human sacrifice to her love, and again and again the audience are invited to join her in visually devouring him.
His disability benefit in danger, Arthur and his Pathways to Work Officer Louise (Alison O’Donnell) fall in love. She’s lonely; he tells her (with unwitting cruelty) that she’s beautiful and he loves her, that it’s all for her, that she’s the one. Gratified, she plays along – for a time. As his nickname, Arty, suggests, Arthur likes to tell stories. He shows us his dreams, all stars and cardboard, and we see him let Louise into them.
It is easy to identify with this sensitively acted, exquisitely lonely, emergently superficial, doomed affair. And yet, concurrently, the people surrounding Arthur are just so – awful. Louise is horrifically rude about some of her clients (and revels in the fact that finding a disabled person a job gets her extra points at work). Jojo can be full Jerry Springer crass ‘Y’know love’, she tells Arthur at one point, ‘there’s kids starving in Africa for a couple cream buns. You’d be like a god to them’, and she keeps Arthur in a state of miserable fear. As he seems to be making progress with his weight-loss regime she jabs him back down, repeating all the things bullies used to say to him at school, revivifying bad childhood memories to prevent him growing up. We’re invited to laugh at Arty’s limited aspirations (‘he could work in an office!’ Louise exclaims, encouragingly). The way the evocatively touching, and the daytime TV mingle makes you feel as queasy as when you’re in the middle of eating something you know is full of saturated fat and is going to give you a crashing sugar-low, and make an executive decision to carry on.
The show, and The Show, are dominated by the producer (wonderfully played by Rhoda Ofori-Attah), as consistently nicey-nicey and silken-voiced as she can be evil. In one sense, there’s nothing real in Arthur’s life, whether he is offering Louise a wedding ring arranged by the TV network or escaping into his fantasy life where he’s a lean, dapper rogue enjoying intense manly friendships and whisking Lulu (the dream-Louise) into his arms. And yet, when Arthur tells the producer he’s in love, Ofori-Attah actually cries. There’s more actual crying from Jojo, when she states that Arthur is all she has left. Like sweat on actor’s clothing where the exertion of playing the role coalesces with the character’s exertion, these tears were the steady centre of authenticity in what was a gaudy merry-go-round of shock.
Previous productions of Beached in Melbourne and Sydney used fat suits, video projections, and giant bean bags to conjure up a truly elephantine Arthur. In Justin Audibert’s production, there is no such trickery: we are confronted with Dryden’s body as it is, and he clearly does not weigh a fraction of 67 stone. Instead, language (terms like ‘stomach apron’, or long descriptions of the thousands of calories he consumes each day), invite us to expand Arthur in our minds. Focusing on an extreme case of obesity, the play sidesteps more mainstream, everyday issues of fat-shaming and food guilt, but this mental effort on the audience’s part can make us realise with what arbitrary and deliberate cruelty the label ‘fat’ is often ascribed to people on social media, in the street, in glossy mags. In sum, though, it says a lot about this production that amid a trash-heap of pearls, insults, and scrunched packets, both the cream buns and the bodily fluids were real.