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Posted on 27 May 2021 in Fiction |

CLAIRE THOMAS The Performance. Reviewed by Michelle McLaren

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Set during a bushfire, Claire Thomas’s second novel juxtaposes the performance of a play with the inner lives of its audience.

We turn to art for strange reasons. We see it as a ticket to help us escape from reality and somehow also as a way to make us more aware of the world. We believe art makes us more empathic; that art can replace therapy. We expect art to make us better people, living better lives. No pressure, art.

But what if art … is just art? I think it’s important to acknowledge that art isn’t always good for us. Just now, I saw someone on Twitter asking for book recommendations to help them deal with grief, but surely what helps one person might make another person’s suffering worse? Or have no effect at all?

A painting won’t put out a bushfire. A sonnet won’t pay the rent. A book won’t keep us safe in a pandemic. In Auden’s words, ‘poetry makes nothing happen‘.

In Claire Thomas’s second novel, The Performance, three women are in the audience of a Samuel Beckett play. It’s the end of a blisteringly hot, windy Melbourne day, and on the hills outside the city, there’s a bushfire blazing.

We’re introduced to Margot first. She’s barely registered the fires at all – they’re just a smear on the windscreen of her Audi. A theatre subscriber, Margot settles down into her seat with an ‘expensive’ view of the stage with barely enough time to regain her composure before the play begins. An academic in her seventies, she is rattled and angry following a confrontation with the dean. As the lights go down in the air-conditioned theatre, she wishes she’d bought a cardigan to cover her cold, bruised arms.

Summer is in her twenties, an aspiring actor working as an usher. When she finally finds her place after showing flustered latecomers to their seats, the play has already started. She’s new to the city and making every effort to live her idea of the perfect Melbourne life. She lives in a sharehouse with writers and podcasters; her ‘cool as fuck’ girlfriend is an Insta-famous tattoo artist. Summer is doing everything right, but she’s still gripped by a persistent anxiety. As the play begins, she worries about her girlfriend, who is driving to her family’s house near the fire zone. Slowly, Summer’s thoughts become a spiral of panic.

Ivy is a philanthropist in her forties. Now she’s rich, she gets everything for free, but her life hasn’t always been so easy. She’s a big fan of Beckett’s work. But the elderly man in the seat next to her, asleep and snoring unashamedly, is distracting her. Watching the play, Ivy’s thoughts drift back to her student days studying Beckett, her former life in Paris, the birth of her first child. She thinks about the things she wants right now: to take out her phone and touch the image of her infant son’s face on the homescreen; to tell her friend that her hair looks nice today.

The Performance is an intense, deeply introspective novel that takes place almost entirely in its characters’ thoughts. Thomas’s narrative leaps deftly between Margot, Summer and Ivy’s streams of consciousness as the three react to the play in real time while also thinking about their lives, their fears and their secrets.

Margot’s husband is suffering from an illness, and for the first time, he’s become violent towards her. Summer is brown-skinned, and her mum – an ‘auburn-haired, green-eyed white woman’, who raised Summer alone – has always refused to tell her anything about her father or her heritage. And as for Ivy, she remains mysterious for much of the novel, revealing her story gradually.

In the darkness of the theatre, minds wander. By the end of the performance, each woman has reached a decision about the way she’ll live her life.

The Beckett play, Happy Days is never specifically named in the book. It’s a two-act play that opens with its main character, Winnie, buried up to her waist in a mound of earth. Undaunted, she goes about her daily routine, insisting that her day is ‘a happy day’. She brushes her teeth, rummages in her handbag and chatters with her husband, Willie, who lolls around ineffectually, offering Winnie no help.

As Margot, Summer and Ivy watch the play, they describe what’s happening on the stage before segueing into a thought or a memory that can last for just a sentence, or continue for pages:

Margot […] concentrates on the woman in the grass.

The woman is kissing a revolver! Good grief! That was unexpected!

The kissing is furtive and fast.

Margot smiles. God knows, she could do with one of those. A revolver. To kiss. And to kill.

She could pop a neat firearm under her pillow. A hard shape that would push into her head and then her dreams, a protective pressure to counter the man-shaped shape beside her in the bed.

This head-hopping could have felt worn pretty quickly, but when the first act ends, we’re presented with something unexpected: a four-scene play called The Interval, in which Margot, Summer and Ivy meet briefly, before returning to their seats for the second act.

Inventive and clever, The Performance is a novel about art and life, though Thomas refrains from hoisting art up onto a pedestal. The play on stage is simply happening while the characters engage and disengage. Is it art that transforms the lives of the three women in the theatre, or is it just the time they’ve spent in the dark, thinking, worrying and planning? For Summer in particular, Beckett’s preoccupation with fire in Happy Days causes her actual distress as she struggles to remain composed, unable to stop thinking of her girlfriend heading towards the fire:

On stage, Winnie is still buried in the hill of parched grass in the bright, white light. She is still gesturing. Still speaking.

Wait for the day to come … the happy day to come when flesh melts at so many degrees.

Summer’s eyes fill with tears. Fuck. These words. This play.

Summer hasn’t noticed that line before, but here it is now, barging into her consciousness like an omen or a prophecy …

Towards the beginning of the novel, Summer describes the air-conditioned theatre as ‘the cold bubble of culture’, creating a persistent sense that what’s happening here is at odds with what’s happening in the sweltering city outside.

In the second act of Happy Days, Winnie’s situation has become worse. She’s now buried up to her neck in the earth. Margot’s reaction is visceral:

The lights flash on over the stage and Margot’s throat catches at the sight of Winnie. She is buried up to her neck now. Only her head and the black feathered hat on top of her hair remain outside of the mound. Her eyes are closed.

Oh, this is horrific. Margot shifts in her chair. She has not seen this before. She thought she had seen the play but she has not seen this.

The grass around Winnie has become dryer, more parched, and her relentless positivity is waning. Towards the beginning of the novel, Ivy reflects on the blighted landscape on the stage:

We humans, all of us, are stuck on a dead planet with extremes that are more extreme. We humans, all of us, have to distract ourselves with denial and busy business.

The planet might be dying, but for the audience in the air-conditioned theatre, and Winnie on the stage, going through her daily routine – what is to be done? The situation might be dire, but life goes on. The show must go on. To paraphrase Beckett in The Unnamable: we must go on. We can’t go on. We’ll go on.

Claire Thomas The Performance Hachette 2021 PB 304pp $32.99

Michelle McLaren is studying Library and Information Services, and currently works in marketing. She lives in Melbourne with her partner, two cats, and way too many books.

You can buy The Performance from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.

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