There is a real temptation when seeing a play so rich in social commentary to either accept its observations as truth or completely dismiss its opinions altogether. It is easy to feel like an expert when it comes to our own society; after all, we all navigate through it every day. When someone decides to shine a spotlight on our unusual behaviour, cultural trends and the dichotomies between class, it is hard not to feel defensive. Such an examination is too complex and culturally significant for this reporter to tackle alone, and so I sought out a social theorist to accompany me on the dark and twisted journey that is Eddie Perfect’s The Beast.
The Beast – the first foray into the world of playwriting for the talented comedian, writer and musician – places Australia under the critical microscope, and it surely raises a few important questions regarding the actions of today’s “hypocritical” middle class. Following three couples who move to the countryside in the wake of a near-death experience, The Beast is a satirical black comedy that explores the pretensions of the middle class, moralities of eco-living, and the true intentions of those who choose to dedicate themselves to a life of sustainability.
The play is set around a planned dinner party where the couples decide to host a nose-to-tail evening featuring a freshly slaughtered organic calf. When circumstances change and the couples are forced to slaughter the calf themselves, the play begins its dark exploration into the minds of each character and the oppressed attitudes that led them to pine for an unselfish sustainable existence.
Each couple suffers their own relationship demons. Rob (Tom Budge) and wife Sue (Virginia Gay) are battling ideas of relationship gender roles, masculinity and self-worth. Simon (Hamish Michael) and Gen (Sheridan Harbirdge) are working their way through the aftermath of Simon’s affair – the nauseating details involve Simon flying to Africa to have sex with their now 18-year-old sponsor child. The third couple Baird (Travis Cotton) and Marge (Kate Mulvany), the clear outsiders of the group who desperately try to fit in with their friends’ sophisticated lifestyles, face the guilt of a past abortion in light of Baird’s recent impotence.
Their interweaving stories serve as a foundation for Perfect’s exploration of middle-class society and culture. The play is heavy with commentary and there are moments where information is force-fed to the audience, making the first half of The Beast feel like a primary school educational video for adults (the coarse language and graphic scenes of squirting blood would not sit well with a real primary school audience). The first half hour is an unsubtle “let’s make fun of the inner-city weirdos” attempt at nuanced social commentary.
My guest of honour, social theorist at the University of Melbourne Dr Geoffrey Mead, sat in near boredom until the final sequence before intermission. At one point he leaned over and whispered, “There’s nothing clever about teasing the obvious flaws in people, that’s like berating a clown for dressing like a clown.”
It definitely felt like a lazy effort to criticise the priorities of people often referred to as “hipsters”. The play made a few poignant references to some modern-day changes in accepted social behaviour, including the moment Simon uses the word ‘retard’ and Rob quickly reminds him that using such a word is now considered offensive. This piece of commentary felt like a very personal statement from Perfect, whose chosen profession of stand-up comedy is constantly reprimanded for the use of now non-politically correct words and phrases.
The deeply intense scene of the calf slaughter meets the intermission with a masterful crescendo, promising a much more engaging and introspective second half. As the theatre emptied temporarily, I sat with Geoffrey (I insisted on Dr Mead, but he prefers Geoffrey) to discuss the play so far. I asked him if he thinks there has been a dramatic increase in middle-class eco-friendly “hipsters” compared to a few decades ago, and why the lifestyle has gained so much popularity. His response made my own interpretations seem very amateur.
“I don’t think that it’s such a significant historical change. Remember that hippies came from the middle class. The surprising thing is how a small fraction of the middle class – mostly composed of people like teachers and social workers – has come to have its views taken so seriously, at least in relation to these issues,” Geoffrey explained.
Geoffrey believes it is a happy coincidence for those members of the middle class that their views just happen to be supported by science – in particular their views on sustainable living being supported by increasing evidence of climate change by climatologists.
“Like the ugly little sibling who hits the lottery, those concerned with causes like the environment have encountered a situation which is highly favorable to their point of view,” Geoffrey said.
It was at this point when a middle-aged lady behind us chimed in to our conversation after hearing our discussion and feeling compelled to interject. Her input both supported and challenged Geoffrey’s views, and felt very apropos in the context of the play.
“I think it’s more about coverage, and the younger middle class these days have the internet and things like Facebook to project their views and concerns,” she said. “When I was in university we made just as much noise, but with much less of an audience.
The Beast makes a point to recognise the growing significance of social media. While Geoffrey agrees in part, he reminded us that with the expansion of internet technologies it is not just the middle class benefitting from a larger audience; people from all reaches of the globe can utilise the internet. Geoffrey feels it is down to the way society perceives middle-class ideologies that has changed over the years, and while the hippies of old were widely condemned for their views, in this day there is a sense of prestige attached to left-wing thinking.
“There is a certain prestige in showing oneself to be environmentally friendly. Purchasing so-called organic products, cycling to work and so on offer more opportunities to demonstrate how distinguished one is and how distinct one is from those who can’t afford to shop at gourmet grocers and who probably wouldn’t ‘get it’ anyway,” Geoffrey argued.
“According to a model by sociologist Pierre Bourdieu…” It was here where I stopped Geoffrey, for once he started dropping names and citing prominent theorists, my more primitive understandings would lead me to mentally check out of the conversation. Besides, there was still much more show left for me to process.
Although much longer in length, the second half was structurally sounder than the first, and the writing allowed the characters to bear the weight of the show’s satire, rather than serve as talking heads like they did in the first half. The dinner party was a clash of personalities, and the characters’ inner demons surfaced. Affairs, insecurities, deceit and even a physical brawl allowed the actors to flex their muscles and bring life to the individuals they embodied.
The final sequence was a confession of truths. The three couples were broken down to mere shells of themselves, and for the first time they confronted the reality of their privileged middle-class existence. The final moment had the actors sit at the edge of the stage, peering out to the audience, and enjoying the simplicity of a fresh and crunchy carrot – perhaps a lesson to all that life is simple and should be enjoyed as such, rather than parading a false selfless facade to satisfy one’s truly selfish desires.
I asked Geoffrey his final thoughts on the play, whether it accurately captured the intentions of the middle class, and if Perfect was right to claim people’s actions are driven by guilt.
“I think the play is too hard on the hypocrisy of the middle class,” he said. “It’s not necessarily the case that people either do something to fit in in a shallow way, or they truly believe they are doing something ‘ethical’. The two can and often do go together. Even if it is a trend it is important to remember how profoundly felt it is as a moral issue,” Geoffrey expressed.
“What’s peculiar about middle-class trends, as opposed to those of the lower classes, is that they are so burdensome. They involve a lot of work and a constant feeling that you aren’t measuring up.”
His response was perhaps more nuanced than the play could ever have hoped to be, but with those final words it is clear that The Beast achieved what it set out to do: to spark serious discussion and self reflection, and to force us to shine a spotlight on ourselves.