Small Mouth Sounds – White people and well-ness (Theatre Review)

Small Mouth Sounds

Darlinghurst Theatre Company

3 – 26 May. You can grab your tickets here.

Images: Robert Catto

Essential to capitalisms trajectory are the efforts of neoliberalism to promote and to a certain extent demand the ideals of individualism. Indeed, a critical irony of neoliberalism is that the more self-regulating it expects and requires society to be, the more self-regulating it expects and requires subjects to become. Within contemporary Western societies, individuals are increasingly expected to be both self-reliant and self-disciplining. Dominant discourses emphasise individual rights and choice is equated with freedom. Citizenship is no longer understood as a participation in a collective sphere but rather in terms of the citizen consumer who takes care of themselves and their own. Often health, that is the health of the individual and the health of the planet, is reduced to the simplicity of right choice of the individual, and choices the individual make are at cause of problems and solutions. The self is not just and object of self-surveillance and anxiety, rather it should be driven by its own need for continuous improvement and fine tuning. In 2014 the Global Wellness Institute found that the 3.4 Trillion dollar global wellness market is now three times larger than the worldwide pharmaceutical industry. Healing ourselves and healing the planet are problems invariably reduced to products such as health retreats and keep cups.

It is here that writer Bess Whol’s powerhouse play Small Mouth Sounds finds its energy. By showing great sympathy for her characters, she is able to laugh at this first world trend that finds its worst manifestation in cultural appropriation (Christian values absorbing Spiritual Asian practices like yoga and mindfulness) and its best in the desperate attempts by citizens to take responsibility for their troubles. Her six characters are troubled folk, but no more troubled than the rest of us. Ultimately, they are searching for what we all need – a cure for being human, and a panacea for planet degradation – but the way white people play at spirituality is a superb subject for a comic play. Director Jo Turner has assembled a wonderful cast who gently and properly manifest the foolishness and idiosyncrasy of what it is to be human. The silence retreat is a clumsy failure, a ridiculous overreach by a culture in search of a quick fix. However, watching these folks arrive and try to ‘get it right’ endears them to ourselves and consequently has us feel warmer toward our own failure. The reification of ‘the market’ as a neutral and natural institution finds its zenith in the wellness retreat that few can afford. In order for markets to operate efficiently, so must their participants. Bess Whol’s characters all come across as engaged, responsible, effective, ethical and successful. At least, they can all afford to mend their deep irreconcilable sadness’s with an expensive silence retreat.

Director Jo Turner does a wonderful job of bringing this lovely play to the Australian Darlinghurst Theatre Stage. Beautiful comic structure is enhanced by the six individual stories played out simultaneously and because there is almost no speaking (a point Jo Tuner emphasises in his notes in the program) facial gestures and equally subtle relatings become magnified and enhanced. He calls forth beautiful performances from his six protagonists. Jane Phegan as Judy is incredibly funny with her facial gestures, particularly toward the start of the play and her partner Joan performed by Sharon Millerchip gives a strong performance in a role that arouses sympathies and horror. Justin Smith is a suitably lost, nuanced Jan (who delivers one of the plays great punchlines) and Dorje Swallow is a fantastic choice for his Jonny-Deppe-esque looks and persona that ground the politics of the play. Amber McMahon delivers her character Alicia with her signature quirky, dynamic approach to the comic, while a stand out performance from Yalin Ozucelik as Ned helps delivers the all-important political message of the play that help reveal the writer and directors’ intentions.

Staging is a standout in the production, and credits Jo Turner with a cohesive performance piece that successfully becomes greater than the sum of its parts. A stand out is the work of Tegan Nicholls who fills the room with sounds in the absence of speech, working with more volume than usually permitted. She is supported with beautiful lighting by Jasmine Rizk who successfully evokes mood as well as time of day. Jeremy Allen’s production design is lovely to look at while properly evoking the ‘retreat’ aesthetic.

However, at the end of the day, it is Jo Turner who pulls this very successful production into place. The smallest details give the play its potent comic edge that allow cast and creatives to shine. His casting choice is of particular note, and separates him from productions around the world – filling the stage with white people fattens out the message and allows us to see ‘white people’ as a cultural entity in addition to individual characters. The plays central ethos is developed into a highly sophisticated critique of contemporary white-ness rather than just a story about six troubled but funny souls. White people should laugh at white people, and this ‘clowning’ creates self-reflection. The wellness industry is a giant machine peddling neoliberalist intention at a time when socialized health care is under threat from governments all around the world. Not to mention how this distracts us from ecological issues that can only be solved when we work in a social group. The ‘wellness fad’ is given full and proper treatment, including a warm sympathy for its supporters. Small Mouth Sounds becmes a fantastic night out, and one that will make you laugh very loud.