no small wonder

doug leonard assesses QTC’s the estimator

THE ESTIMATOR IS DAVID BROWN’S SECOND PLAY TO BE DEVELOPED AND PRODUCED BY QUEENSLAND THEATRE COMPANY (THE FIRST WAS 2005’S HIGHLY ACCLAIMED EATING ICE CREAM WITH YOUR EYES CLOSED). IT STARTS AS AN ALIENATED WORKING CLASS COMEDY OF CROSS-PURPOSES AND ENDS AS TRAGEDY (THE SORT WE READ ABOUT IN THE NEWSPAPERS.)

The setting is a one-bedroom Housing Commission flat on the outskirts of suburbia. As the play begins, we hear, portentously, a recorder playing a faltering version of Advance Australia Fair. The plot revolves around a young man, Martin (Remy Hii), an estimator with Far and Wide Removals who is under the misapprehension that he has been called to give an estimate for the occupants. These tenants are, on every level, going nowhere. Yonni (Carole Skinner) is a diabetic grandmother—“It’s a life-style disease”—who cares for her 12 year old orphaned granddaughter, Sharday (Natasha Wanganeen). Martin is drawn into their existence together through role plays and ritual games: “We hold together a few bits and pieces and we just try and kick on. Don’t we, Shard? We sing a few songs. Tell a few stories, recite some nice poems and we just kick on.” Amongst the appalling debris in this domicile is a kitsch shrine to Yonni’s son, Mozzy, Sharday’s father. It transpires that Martin has also lost a father, and that junkies are implicated in both deaths. They form The Children’s Association for Dads who are Dead.

Enter Karen (Bridget Boyle), Yoni’s daughter and Sharday’s Aunt. This rude, racist, impossible woman has been the one to engage Martin’s services in an estimation of the life of her brother, Mozzy, an habitual junkie who died of an overdose in prison after being apprehended, as it turns out, for killing Martin’s Dad in an armed robbery. Inspired by attending a New Age workshop, her confused intention is to lay bare the facts so that everyone can move on. Karen’s intervention is given some stick in a program note which criticises the self-help industry. This is a bit unfair, I think. Who was it who said the unexamined life is not worth living? Certainly someone speaking from the centre of culture, not from the margins. The Advocate in Strindberg’s A Dream Play insists that the worst thing of all is “Repetition. Repeating the pattern.” Karen’s intervention seems perfectly respectable in the light of such a high cultural precedent. If she desperately relies on what is available to her, however cranky, is she more absurd than someone currently deploying troops in Australia? However, it is unlikely that anything has fundamentally changed. Yonni’s last word, after her own devastating revelation, is: “A cuppa is what we’d all like.” You have to admire the resilience. And a kind of loving.

Jon Halpin’s sensitive direction (although I would have preferred a brisker pace at times), and an outstanding cast convinces us that Brown’s play is deeply moral and compassionate without flinching from the shortcomings and limitations evident in the lives of his characters. It is out of these that he weaves his scabrous poetry. But the morality, the compassion is quiet, simply declaring that these sorts of people deserve attention. In the final moment as the sun sets and we hear the sound of whip birds in the distance, we are called upon to make our own estimation—about our own agency in the world, about the nature of the world (and the world of nature), aware that our own complicit natures are part of the equation. Brown doesn’t allow us to escape into neutrality, but invites us instead to enter into the discipline of listening, of cultivating a Socratic sense of ‘wonder.’ No small lesson for these loud times when everybody is speaking, but few are speaking well.

As someone brought up in a fibro home, I loved it.

Queensland Theatre Company, The Estimator, writer David Brown, director Jon Halpin, performers Bridget Boyle, Remy Hii, Carole Skinner, Natasha Wanganeen, design Kieran Swann, lighting Ben Hughes, composer & sound designer, Brett Collery; Billie Brown Studio, QTC, Brisbane, June 4-July 7

RealTime issue #80 Aug-Sept 2007 pg. 43

© Doug Leonard; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 August 2007