A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay about the Death of Walt Disney

ARTS, Theatre & Performing Arts

img_publicreadingBy Lucas Hnath
Directed by Danny Mulheron and Miranda Manasiadis
Circa Theatre, Wellington | August 30-September 27

You can’t assume a play that did it for audiences at New York City’s Soho Rep will work at Circa. A play that takes all sorts of risks, whose protagonist is Lear as sociopath? A writer who chops up language to its minimum, like Beckett perhaps, or Stein? A mixed-up aesthetic that zigzags between stage and screen? Actors who are almost frozen for the whole eighty minutes?

A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay about the Death of Walt Disney presents a fictional scene from the life of the Disney family. Walt’s brother Roy, his daughter, and her husband Ron, have assembled to hear Walt read a screenplay in which he retells his life. A high-functioning narcissist, he wants to prolong his ending into the slowest fade possible. Walt dreams of immortality; dissatisfied with his prior fantasies, he wants to turn his dreams into reality: Fordlandia in Florida, a real Emerald City! Except he’s not a wizard, and, at the end of the day, he has to hand over his empire to the footballer son-in-law he despises. There’s more to Richard Falkner’s Ron than brawn, and the reality is that you mess with a guy like that at your peril.

Walt is not a stand-up kind of guy either. In his slather of self-justification, in his scorn for his collaborators and workers, he reminded me of Monty Burns and his hounds. David McPhail’s volatile portrayal of his driven ruin was riveting; he repelled identification or empathy almost to his last gasp. He was a one man language breakdown. At the distance the production created for its spectators, you could look on, fascinated. Fascination for empathy—that’s not a bad trade. Did Walt really not do significant others?

Like Kim Kardashian on holiday, Walt takes a stream of selfies. Unlike Kim, he’s not in good shape; he fends off decline with a protracted last supper of vodka and cigarettes, which doesn’t seem fun. For most of the play, the four characters are seated at a table before a cornucopia they don’t partake of. They are part of the setting, a still life, a pose which is gradually dismantled.  Any alteration, each gesture, each gesture is subtle, significant. Life isn’t beautiful for these beautiful people. The direction was refined, kept up its stare.

Every now and then Walt checked in with us, his second audience, cast us a sly glance: we are still his fans, aren’t we? As for his first audience, the characters in his story, he micromanages the life out of them. The main means at his disposal is his filmic ‘cut to’. He uses this device to disrupt his listeners’ sense of time, and to interrupt them whenever he wants to block their response. As he loses control, he rattles off ‘cut tos’ at a rate of knots. For me, the device lost its force then, became a mannerism.

His only sustained dialogue is with his brother Roy. Roy acts as his sounding board in a lop-sided exchange that ends up costing him his marriage. Walt wants to appear as the nice guy; adept at dirty politics, he takes the credit for every success and flicks the blame for any wrongdoing onto his bagman Roy. Nick Blake portrayed the misery and complicity of the brother’s struggle, with a desperate precision. Cordelia-like, Walt’s daughter suffered him in silence. Walt’s was a solo version of the poet’s: “they fuck you up your Mum and Dad.” When she does speak, it is not to profess love, but to defend herself against him. As the daughter, Jessica Robinson’s stillness was unsettling. Her pain accumulated.

Another use of ‘cut to’, combined with his specification of type of shot, is to focus the way we, the audience, see the story. Walt means us to view it as a film so we can only see his shots. This leads to an intriguing double effect, because, of course, we can shift our gaze around the stage at will, and its effects are not at Walt’s beck and call. The stage was framed as a cinema to highlight this aesthetic doubleness; its sparse retro elegance added to the sense of unreality.

We don’t hear anything from Walt’s spouse. Walt can be sentimental: he calls her once in an attempt at reconciliation. His pitches a frozen post-mortem reunion of heads, but it falls on deaf ears. The humour was hardly LOL for the audience I was with, but a New York City audience may well have found it hilarious. I did find it hard to restrain myself when it came to Walt’s recital of his fan list—items such as the copycat suicide of a famous fan by (Snow White’s) poisoned apple. In the last scene, I wondered if I’d been watching his last scene all along, the fast, sometimes manic, forward and back with which he attempts to fend off the one cut he doesn’t control. So much for immortality.

If you’re looking for a Walt doco, this won’t be for you. For me, this was a terrific play where less was more—there was less expressiveness, there was more to think about, and the cut-down language had crunch. As a teacher, I responded to the play’s critique of the hegemonic fantasy. I have lost count of the number of times I have heard a kid win a school talent quest with ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ or seen pastiches of Oz at school drama festivals. Our kids seem no less prey to the Magic Kingdom than their U.S. counterparts, to Oz and all his avatars. Is it possible that this sharp portrayal of one of its deities might make you think twice about the escapism that, for our well-off children, is now only two clicks away?