Melissa Bubnic’s Beached is a new Australian work that takes on some big issues – the play’s protagonist, a boy named Arty, is the fattest teenager in the world.
“Arty is house-bound because of his size,” director Shannon Murphy explains, ahead of the play’s Griffin Theatre Company debut. “He lives with his mother JoJo, who is taking care of him. He needs to have gastric bypass surgery, because he’s already had two heart attacks at the age of 18. He agrees to let Shocking Fat Stories, a reality TV show, come into his home and film his journey to lose enough weight that he can eventually have the surgery. It’s a story about what happens when you let the world of reality TV into your reality.”
The play, Murphy tells me, highlights the mercenary nature of reality TV shows like The Biggest Loser, and looks at the ways they manipulate reality. “Beached investigates reality TV in a way that’s really interesting for a theatrical piece,” she says. “It looks at how TV can edit around what you’re doing and manipulate how you’re perceived by the public. It’s about how reality TV is made and shaped.” The stage even features a live video feed, running footage from the Shocking Fat Stories TV show. “It’s quite interesting,” Murphy says, “because the actors can see themselves on screen as they perform, but even then, what you see on stage and what you see on the screens is never the same thing.”
Blake Davis, the young star of Tangle and The Slap, plays the 400-kilo teenager Arty. Murphy won’t tell me how exactly the character is depicted, but she tells me that she and the production team came up with a creative solution. “I don’t want to give away what we’ve done, but I think it’s essential to depict Arty’s size on stage,” she says. “I don’t think you can just ask people to use their imaginations, because the suspension of disbelief is too great. The fact is that you just don’t encounter people of Arty’s size on a regular basis – they’re not able to leave their houses necessarily, and they don’t move around as much, simply because a lot of public spaces aren’t built for them.”
Melissa Bubnic is one of our finest up-and-coming playwrights, and Murphy tells me that she was blown away by the quality of the dialogue in Beached. “What’s interesting about her, compared with a lot of other playwrights,” she says, “is that when she tells you she’s writing a contemporary play, she really means that she’s writing something for the here and now.” Murphy refers to Bubnic’s particular brand of theatre as ‘pop culture plays’. “Melissa addresses things that the new generations are dealing with. She analyses the messages that we’re sent through advertising, and the ways these messages change how we think. Her dialogue is very modern, she uses a lot of vernacular language, and it rolls off the actors’ tongues really easily.”
Aside from Davis, the cast is a roster of top-notch local talent, including Arka Das, Kate Mulvany and Gia Carides. “I’ve admired Gia for a while,” Murphy says. “She’s vivacious and generous and caring, and I thought she’d be perfect for the role of JoJo, the mother. Likewise, I’ve worked with Kate Mulvany a lot as a writer over the years, but I’ve always wanted to work with her as an actor, and this was my chance. You always have people you want to work with, but you just have to wait for the right roles to come along for what you want to do. These people have just fallen into place for Beached.”
BY ALASDAIR DUNCAN