The Realistic Joneses – Will Eno and the absurdist language game. (Theatre Review)


The Realistic Jonses

Patina Productions at Limelight on Oxford

13-30 March. You can grab your tickets here.

Images: Clare Hawley

It was Wittgenstein who said ‘A serious and good philosophical work could be written consisting entirely of jokes.’ It is this idea that occurs when watching The Realistic Joneses, a Will Eno play directed by Julie Baz. Riffing of their enormous success with Thom Pain (Based on Nothing) Julie Baz and David Jeffery have teamed up again to bring another Will Eno play to life on the Sydney Indie Stage. This time they tackle The Realistic Joneses, a commonplace farce that is anything other than commonplace. As with their previous effort, this work reveals an uncanny understanding of the text; a text that could easily be identified as pushing meaning into the realm of social practice and ethnography. Will Eno plays are easily produced but difficult to execute with the intellect and finesse required to make the language work. With David Jeffrey at point, this complex word play and cultivated script fulfil on the writers intent to emphasise ‘normality’ via the blatant absurdity of the suburb. Julie Baz proves herself (once again) to be a seasoned wordsmith interpreter, courageous in her stand for her own vision, and insightful in her ability to intuit the writer’s intent.

It is rare in theater, but one of theatres great offerings, to find an actor who is able to apprehend a writer’s text with a fullness translatable to the audience. Usually we are gifted with ‘interpretation’ or ‘translation’ – much of which contains its own pleasures – but rarely we see a performance where an actor can successfully deduce a writer in the space between the text. David Jeffrey as John Jones is one of those sublime moments. For my money, even better than his Thom Pain moment, his John Jones incorporates the euro-centric complexities of Will Eno’s writings combined with Eno’s intelligent (one might argue almost desperate) efforts to seduce American culture to a sophisticated connection with its own history. Apparently, it takes Australians, and might I add, independent theatre makers of great integrity with the ability (and self-made funding) to produce theatre according to passion and inspiration, to reveal another theatre making culture to itself. But isn’t this what we love about theatre? When art communicates with art and makes art Real?

Will Eno is always (for me anyway) an exemplar of the ‘Investigations’ Wittgenstein period as opposed to the ‘Tractatus’ period. The great shift in language identification and understanding was from positivism (do not speak of that about which one knows nothing) to the construction of ‘language-games’ that we play out in the course of every-day life.’ In most cases, ‘the meaning of a word is its use.’ It isn’t what you say, but the way that you say it that carries value. Will Eno is the modern absurdist, after Beckett, after Kafka, after Stoppard (what is more surreal and absurd than the suburbs?) but intention becomes more than language and the great brilliance of Will Eno is his ability to posit language as a straight sentence of meaning with language as a formulaic transitory delivery sparked by ephemera and absurdity. This is something Julie Baz and David Jeffrey grasp at the level where artists reach each other, and deliver with all the joi de vivre of what it is to love being alive.

And of course, this is Will Eno’s point perfectly executed. Meeting in one’s driveway, under a sensor light IS the stuff of life for a vast majority of the world. This is where beauty and realism meet. Bob (Jeff Houston) is dying, and maybe John (David Jeffrey) is too, but when men meet and ‘throw words at each other’ and admit that they do not know how to be men, is there anything more ‘real.’ But this is the beauty of Will Eno’s words. It is arresting and disturbing when Bob goes to leave, and John calls after him, ‘pretend I said something comforting’ in the dark of the night. Will Eno’s characters speak their intentions and because ‘We’ never ever do, it is entirely funny and brilliant to associate with perfectly drawn characters who reveal us to ourselves.

This production of The Realistic Jonses is a brilliant piece of true independent theatre in Sydney by one of Sydney’s most unassuming and genuinely autonomous theatre companies. I have not laughed this hard at a production in years, and the absolute and abject joy I experienced at being properly made fun of (Will Eno can easily pierce into the heart of a good post-Christian white girl) by a group of erudite creatives was one I won’t be able to replicate soon. Julie Baz has produced a stellar cast, calls forth a proper example of contemporary absurdity, gleaned from the most absurd of all countries, America. Cleverly, and true to great creative subtlety, Julie Baz made the decision to keep to native accents, which perfectly relieves Americans from the intensity of the magnifying glass Will Eno has created. Here in Australia, however, none of this version of Real is lost in this sophisticated approach. We see these people struggling with illness as utterly American, due to the nature of the absurdity.

Casting is particularly strong in this manifestation of The Realistic Jonses. Suzann James is a gentle and longsuffering Jennifer Jones. Will Eno paints this character’s patience as one of the strongest points of absurdity and Suzann James follows through on this, using small facial movements to convey enormous moments forced into petty frustrations in a beautiful depiction of the tragedy of the housewife archetype. This performance is gentle, entirely at home on the small intimate stage and at ease with the one character that becomes a stable base for the play. Jeff Houston as Bob Jones is her counterpart, properly distant and managing to strike a remarkable chord between the strangeness of the day and the discomfort of facing huge personal tragedy. Jeff Houston carries his characters illness like a strange briefcase he has to take to work. As Bob Jones he stares at and through his wife letting his gruffness distance her and his audience. One of the plays many delights is the way Jeff Houston guides us to liking Bob Jones toward the end of the play.

Jodine Muir is the perfect Pony Jones posited against David Jeffrey’s John Jones. Jodine Muir has the beauty and quirky style required but it is her performance that manages the delicate (and hysterical) balance between the a recognizable ‘normal’ person and the zany persona Will Eno created. These mirror Joneses, these neighbors, the linguistic Other, come over the fence as a skewed Cony Island mirror toward the first Jonses. These crucial and demanding roles come together in a stunning manifestation between David Jeffrey and Jodine Muir that not only riffs off the ‘normalcy’ of the first couple, but co opts them into the oddness that might have been The Real all along.

The set (also by David Jeffrey) is simple yet beautifully wrought, particularly with the clever lighting work of Mehran Mortezaei. Costume design by Julie Baz plays with great subtlety to the mirror effect between the two couples. Meaning is kept deft but subtle, giving Will Eno’s text all it needs to take front and center stage. Tireless work behind the scenes by stage managers Shiya Lu and Alex Liu keeps the production running smoothly, eliminating any distractions so important in an intimate space.

The Realistic Joneses by Patina Productions turns out to be one of the best manifestations of a classic American text you will be likely to see in 2019 on an Australian stage. This is another success that bodes well for the new Limelight on Oxford space who have had a particularly strong 2019 so far. If you haven’t had a chance to see this production, rush to grab your tickets. If you haven’t been to the all new Limelight on Oxford space yet, this is the perfect opportunity to do so. I haven’t heard an audience laugh like that in Sydney for a long time.