FURIOUS MATTRESS by Melissa Reeves
Tom Healey on the latest release from Red Door
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In this collection of plays I love, Furious Mattress has been a long time coming and its creator, Melissa Reeves, is well overdue for this imprint. I first met Melissa when, as a young drama school graduate, I auditioned for, and was cast in her extraordinary bioplay of Mary McKillop entitled Storming Heaven. It was produced by the dearly departed RED SHED in Adelaide which regularly commissioned both Melissa and Daniel Keene, and was responsible for many of their early successes. (Stay tuned for more of these to arrive in the catalogue shortly). I later commissioned, developed and directed her eerie, atmospheric 19th Century serial killer epic, Salt Creek Murders and then directed The Spook for Malthouse Theatre in Melbourne (which later premiered Furious Mattress).
One of the defining qualities for me in good playwriting is the presence of a particular, unmistakeable ‘voice’. This is akin in many ways to being able to spot, say, a Rothko, a Warhol or a Van Gogh across a room. What we are recognizing in that moment is the person’s artistry, their particular way of seeing the world. This is the gift that artists give us - the possibility of seeing the world through a different pair of goggles for a moment or, in the case of the theatre, for a few stolen hours in the dark. To me, great playwriting offers its audience (and the artists who are working on it) the possibility of re-ordering the world. In a strange way, your hierarchy of perception can shift as you watch the work. Details that you might barely notice in the normal course of events are suddenly privileged. Certain behaviours are singled out for scutiny, moral views examined and themes that preoccupy and/or fascinate the artist return again and again. Reeves’ writing falls very firmly into this category. I am absolutely sure that I would be able to pick her ‘voice’ in a blind test every time without being given any clues. Why is this important? Because it means that the artist is working from a place of absolute authenticity; there is no imitation or adapting to fashion in this process. Here, the artist works from the visceral self, manifesting their unique perspective on the world, thus leading us to see things in a new light.
As Melissa mentions in her video interview, she, like many artists, is wary of unpicking her particular world view because it is so instinctive and organic. But, as readers and audiences at one remove from the creative process, we find it somewhat easier, and less dangerous, to think about. Reeves’ plays are peopled by characters who are, either consciously or unconsciously, bucking the machine. In many cases (as in Furious Mattress), this character is a woman. As Melissa herself puts it in her interview, she writes women with enormous appetite. In Storming Heaven there is no extant teaching order for the poor so Mary McKillop makes one up; in Happy Ending the unhappy and frustrated central character, Louise, relentlessly pursues a sexual relationship with a young Chinese masseur. In Furious Mattress this theme is presented in a different and more complex way through its central character, Else, who is a country wife about to be subjected to an exorcism by her husband, the aptly named Pierce.
Furious Mattress is inspired by, though in no way seeks to represent, a well-documented actual case in rural Victoria. In 1993 in the tiny hamlet of Antwerp, Joan Vollmer died after undergoing an exorcism organized by her husband and carried out by several members of a local Christian group. Vollmer was a diagnosed schizophrenic whose behaviour appears to have been misread by a group of religious extremists.
Reeves imports the bare bones of this story into the narrative of Furious Mattress, including the bizarre involvement of a young and completely inexperienced ‘exorcist’. In real life, he was a local green keeper; in the play, he is Max, a plumber, an occupation which he describes not “the worst kind of apprenticeship for an exorcist”.
The great achievement of Furious Mattress is Reeves’ juxtaposition of the terrible and truly frightening tragedy of the real case against the irrefutable reality of the everyday. As much as we might want to understand this subject in its large moral and spiritual aspects, Reeves forces us to sit with it as a real occurrence. The action of the play is largely naturalistic in tone (albeit with occasional flights of extraordinary poetic vision – flying chairs, a talking rat crawling out of Else’s vagina, a vengeful marital mattress) because this apparent contradiction is what Reeves is interested in. How do these extreme events play themselves out? What is this world in which such strange and terrible things happen? What is the mundane reality of starting a religious order, or spying for your country, or carrying out an exorcism?
The central character, Else, is not in any traditional or romantic sense a heroine. She is bored and frustrated. She is medicated for an unspecified mental condition. She is occasionally hostile and vicious to her husband. Pierce and Else’s marriage is presented as an empty relationship where not much – if anything – is working. But the world Else is in, the narrowness and religious zealotry that surrounds her, the lack of care she experiences in both her marriage and her community is horror inducing. Else is a strong and fascinating character, trapped by the limitations of those around her. The act of vengeance extracted by her husband is breathtaking. Through Else, Reeves taps into a long history of the demonization of women by men, particularly women like Else who are actively sexual, intellectually awake and instinctively demanding as people.
This deeper theme is the play’s central engine. The extraordinary spin Reeves throws upon it is the total lack of self-awareness or culpability on the part of not only Pierce but his collaborators, Max and Anna, as well. This, Reeves argues, is finally the real source of brutality: the banality of conformity and the consequent sense of complicity and righteousness it confers on its adherents.
Tom Healey, March 2016
AustralianPlays.org Literary Manager and curator of its Red Door imprint
Tom Healey in conversation with Melissa Reeves