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Influence of Jeff Noon on my writing

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Just been rereading Jeff Noon’s 2001 manifesto ‘How to make a modern novel’. This essay and Noon’s work in general, has been a massive influence on me since my brother Tom first loaned me a copy of Vurt in 1997.

Sometimes I even forget how much my work has been shaped by his. Looking over the Manifesto again, I’m struck by how many of Noon’s precepts have been incorporated into my work. Discussing a record by Richie Hawtin:

‘The CD consists of 38 pieces of music, played on a number of turntables, with two or three records being played simultaneously. Hawtin includes a diagram on the CD’s sleeve, which depicts where each record begins and ends. With this in mind, we could use Richie Hawtin’s CD as the template for a novel. We need to create 38 stories, which then blend into each other using the CD’s diagram as a guide. As one story comes to an end, another story, or two other stories, are mixed into it. These new stories are then carried on, until further stories are added to the mix.

Hawtin will return to the same record twice, or to a different remix of the record; we can use this technique to allow our various stories to reappear at different places in the narrative. There are no rules, only opportunities. Above all, imagine the pleasure gained from following the various stories through the mix.’

This is the exact route through which a lot of my work has come about. Always and all the time, creating tiny short fragments of writing – scraps of conversation, settings, characters, story arcs, anything. Then, whenever a larger work needs to come about, grab a selection of these pieces (the more disparate the better) and drop them in one place.

Now, how will these pieces fit together? Most of the time, they won’t. Any sort of coherent thread linking the fragments at this stage is an unlikely bonus. Nevertheless, find some links, somewhere, between some of the pieces. Put two different speeches in the mouth of one character, place two disconnected events in the same setting at the same time. When you’ve aggregated together some larger chunks, you can start hunting for the threads that will hold it together – and noting which pieces still don’t fit, no matter what you do to connect them.

Originally, I used to do this other writers’ words – again, borrowing from Noon’s lead. However, where Noon’s transformations left his source material utterly transformed, my pieces often ended up as pastiches of other people’s work – in music terms, more like a CD compilation than a proper DJ set. This was the criticism behind my 2003 play w3 w3lcome the future (actually, there were many and varied criticisms of w3w3, but that’s the one that I think was most relevant).

The one occasion where this sampling and remixing really came into its own was the frozen shape collective’s Chosei: Eternal Life (2002). The collective in question was myself, Nick McCorriston and David Shaw, and the show was produced by Opiate Productions as part of a double-bill with an adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s The System of Dr Tarr and Professor Fether. Nick, Muttley and I each contributed a short story to the mix (with additional material donated by Emma Markala), and we attempted to gather them into one coherent whole.

The pieces:

Brian W. Aldiss – Swastika!
Greg Egan – Axiomatic
Anton Chekhov – Death of a Clerk
Jeff Noon – Homo Kareoke
Ted Chiang – 72 Letters
Tibor Fischer – A Portrait of the Artist as a Flaming Deathmonger

Chosei went through a huge range of incarnations in the space of a very few weeks, finally settling upon an idea which to this day I can’t determine the origin of: set in 1953 in an old Soviet prison camp in the wilds of Siberia, Jewish scientist/mystic John Genius has been employed by Stalin to prophecy the future of the USSR. Genius’ method is to use the re-animated semen of Adolf Hitler, collected from two ejaculations of the Fuhrer in 1927 and in1945. The two different batches of sperm produce different variants on Hitler, which are kept under control by Genius by use of Kabbalistic magic (precisely formulated magical instructions imprinted on the back of their necks), and forced to face one another in endless games of Go, which Genius analyses to interpret the future of Russia.

Chosei is something we are all fairly proud of – whatever else you can say about it, it was original in its own happy way.

More recently, the mix CD process has been behind the formulation of my spoken word pieces. The current piece I’m working on: god is a renegade (for performance at This Is Not Art on September 29) has been gathered together out of scraps from play scripts (The North Sea, Weasel and Brown on the Beach), conversations with friends (duels to the death, prostitute confessional) and other poems (Platypus Fever). The linking narrative has grown out of some words I found in a folder of some old word documents:

‘We know that God has a variety of different personas that he adopts. That he adopts because certain activities require a particular personality, or because he simply likes one or two attitudes more than others at particular points. We know that the most common persona he adopts is that of a harried resistance fighter, a sort of covert soldier who is constantly under attack and/or surveillance, and is always nervous and never at rest.’

Another of Noon’s tricks was to publish a Discography of his novel Needle in the Groove. These were the artists and albums he was listening to while creating the work, and music and rhythm being such a central aspect of Noon’s writing, he elected to highlight them. Whether influenced by Noon or not, I think it’s fair to say that certain musics, texts and movies have been significant factors in the creation of all my works. I would love to acknowledge and give props to as many of these musics as I can think of (without in any way blaming them for the work that resulted thereby). This will be my page of sources.

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in the last branches

A short play in which a hangman (a particular kind of hangman) named Can I arrives at a casino to carry out a sentence on a noble-born lady named Littul. Although Can I tries to make the process as pleasant as possible, Littul is not reconciled to the judgment attached to her crime.

Download in the last branches as a Word doc.

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…in the dark rain over the flood
cowering in the last branches…

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There are 12 stage directions in the play. They appear in the order:
casino
saliva
blood
massage
strike
strip
kiss
kiss
breath held
choke
peel
infect

You should definitely think about changing around the order that these occur in.

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in the last branches

casino

Can I: I can do it I can do it because I want to do it – it’s for you!

saliva

Can I: yes that’s it that’s definitely it, that’s it ready to run out and go.

blood

Can I: No definitely, definitely, completely. All there, all there, everything ready. Noose, yes. Noose, yes. All the pieces here, yes. Noose, yes. All the pieces here and I’m here because
I
want to.

But I’m so glorious! So dazzling! I knock you to the ground with power!

You’re still going to swing.

But I have everything here for you, I have all the bits you were ever missing in your life here for you in this small grey pouch here for you!

You’re still going to swing.

But you’re sorry for me! I’m a speck in your flood. I’m a little broken mote floating across your eyeball. I’m not big enough to even –

You’re still going to swing.

even to –

You’re still going to swing.

But I can outwit you and trick you. I can choke you and stomp on your throat and trick you and stick you.

You’re still going

But you already –

I did already swing.

You already swung.

But you’re still going to swing. Finished? There you see I out-debate your every point. It’s easy because I can do it because I want to do it – it’s for you.

massage

Littul: WHO’S TOUCHING ME?
You dirty maimed dog! You put your paws on me? My dogs will tear out your arms by the roots! Croupier, slice this vagrant in half! You don’t interrupt me during a game. You don’t touch me without permission.

Can I: May I touch you?

Littul: I know what you are. I know what you’ve got. You don’t dare come for me.

Can I: I’m here.

Littul: If you try to give it to me they’ll take you apart. My old chamberlain, his son now works for the Head of the Guard. I can have you arrested, have your face underwater in a tank before you get as far as the gates.

Can I: I didn’t realise that.

Littul: I’ve got friends in every hand of the Administration and just even for the damage you’ve done already, coming in and insulting me in front of these people, they’ll punish you, just even for, just even for interrupting me in the middle of – in the middle of –

Can I: Were you winning?

Littul: They’ll know who it came from, it’ll have your fingerprints all over it, your every prints, and they’ll drop you in a hole – there’s people in every hand of the government, I have birds on every feather of every wing of – adminis – they’ll know who it’s from, and you’ll – you’ll die sucking gravel at the bottom of a well if you touch your skin to my skin –

Can I: Maybe. You’re still going to swing. Now what do you want me to wear?

Littul: …

Can I: Colours. What colour should I dress in?

Littul: Silver. Black. Wings. It doesn’t matter.

Can I: It always matters! I can take from your clothes if you like, or I have a bag full of different outfits. What colour turns you on?

Littul: No.

Can I: Transparent? I have a dress in here transparented. Do you like that? You like baby blue?

Littul: Do you think you’re going to – right here? You think you can just pass it to me in the middle of a casino?

Can I: You knew I was coming. You could have run and been halfway across the rivers by now. Didn’t have to come here.

Littul: How do you think you can get away with it in front of all these people? Everyone here knows who you are. They know what you’re carrying. Everyone knows what this woman is, don’t you?

Can I: Yes they do.

Littul: No shame! This woman, not ashamed to walk into a casino, to walk right into the middle of a game and grab a victim. Why should she be ashamed? Look at her! Standing here wrapped in rags with her bare feet and hair washed in a river, what’s she got to be ashamed of? Standing there as if none of you know why she’s here –

Can I: -they know why I’m here.

Littul: You should have brought an escort of guards and knocked on my door in the morning, instead of coming here by yourself. Shouldn’t have shown everyone your face.

Can I: Maybe not. You’re still going to swing.

Littul: Doing yourself up like a hermit with a noose – why don’t you wear a hood and carry an axe?

strike

Can I: You’re trying to shame me in front of these sad pissheads? Hangman wears a hood cause she’s scared of being recognised. I take responsibility for every head I ever put through a noose, but I don’t feel – I don’t feel – You sour animals, on the other hand – all you behind the poker machines and you creatures behind the bar – you’re glowing with guilt and fear. I might have been coming for any one of you. There might still be someone coming for you, on their way right now. If this woman deserves to swing, so does every one of you. Do they know what you did?

Littul: …might have guessed.

Can I: They’ve done worse than you. They’ve all got something following them. Who knows when it’s going to catch up, but they know it’s on its way. They’re watching us now because they want to know what it looks like when it gets here. Pay attention, all of you! This is how it happens. One of us – maybe me – comes for you especially. All for you. This lady can dress me how she likes, have me whatever way she wants. This arm, think of this arm wrapped around you – look at my legs – think of these legs wrapped however you want them – my face, my mouth, saying whatever you want to hear…. Or are you scared to look at me?

Littul: …

Can I: Now what do want me to wear? Any outfit, any costume – if you have something in your wardrobe, I’ll wear it. What do you like?

Littul: …naked.

Can I: You want me nude? Is that what you like?

Littul: Only I’m not turned on right now.

Can I: That’s okay. That’s okay. Naked’s fine, I can do that.

strip

Can I: I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you then. Just watch me. Eyes open, keep your eyes on me. Just relax. Watch my shoulders.

Littul: You’re not attractive.

Can I: I’m sorry, I know – that’s why the outfits.

Littul: I don’t mean – I mean, I’m not into…

Can I: I know. I knew you were straight. I mean I knew about your – I knew about Rory, so I figured. Even so I can make it good for you. I can make you sing. Even when – I can make you sing.

Littul: You can be bribed, can’t you? You’ve been bribed before.

Can I: Not for money.

Littul: No, not money. A hunk of meat or a puff on a cigarette, maybe, yes? No? What about a job?

Can I: A job?

Littul: A job, that’s right. In my gardens. Shade from the sun all day and then a meal at night. And sleeping out of the wind.

Can I: Sleeping?

Littul: Out of the wind. A little nest in the garden with dirt piled up and soft grass inside it. Out of the wind. And food, and a pair of shoes, and no more sleeping in trees to keep out of the lion’s reach. A place to sleep. Do you want it?

Can I: How can you –

Littul: Yes. I can. I have moneys. I have – I pay – I move you creatures through my gardens like pieces on a board.

Can I: Used to.

Littul: Still! I have money still!

Can I: Even if you still did –

Littul: I do! I move you creatures through my gardens like pieces on a board!

Can I: You’re still going to swing. How do you want me to touch you? Like this?

Littul: That’s why I came here tonight. I was going to win enough to buy you off with.

Can I: Touch you here… How does that feel?

Littul: No, Rory touched me – I had seven dollars and now they have it. They gave me one of those bones with nothing on it.

Can I: Where did Rory touch you?

Littul: If I’d kept hold of that money – the rivers, the dolphins in the rivers – no, not there, don’t – don’t – I could have afforded to keep him.

Can I: Maybe you wouldn’t have kept him even then.

Littul: I wouldn’t have done it if I could have afforded – if he hadn’t gotten expensive – don’t. Don’t.

Can I: Please don’t plead. Please relax.

Littul: It was a mistake. It was a mistake. I don’t know what it was. I didn’t think it would do this much damage –

Can I: Don’t jerk your head.

Littul: It’s not fair punishment. I didn’t have anything to do with it, I didn’t untie it – I can’t untie anything. This is not – it’s not – not compassionate – it’s not –

kiss

Can I: Please, please don’t panic. It’s scary, it is scary. But I want it to be nice as well. Help me.

Littul: Why do you want to make it good for me?

Can I: Because it was bad for me.

kiss

Can I: When you were sentenced, when they announced what you’d done, I asked for this. I wanted to be the one that swings you. I thought you should – I want to make you sing. What did Rory do? What you want, I want to do that for you.

Littul: What I want?

Can I: I’m here for you. Whatever makes you feel, whatever makes you shiver in the base of your belly.

Littul: Your breath.

Can I: My…

Littul: Hold your breath.

Can I: Is that what Rory did – what you enjoy?

Littul: Hold your breath. Yes. And I’ll tell you what I enjoy.

breath…

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…held

Littul: Keep going, that’s right. This is what I like. Lie back. I need to be on top. And you have to hold my hands – take my hands in your hands – lie back, I’m going to sit on your stomach, keep your breath in – now, take my hands and lay them on your throat. This is what Rory did for me, and he used to drag my fingernails down his windpipe as well. Hold your breath – keep holding. And he rested his arms at his sides. He rested his arms at his sides. He laid his hands on the ground. Hands – yes, hands on the ground. This is what I like.

choke

Littul: You plague-bearing bitch! You asked for – you let them poison every cell in your body and then you sign up to keep spreading it – you requested me? You requested me? You –

Can I: You’re still going to swing.

Littul: You’re going to choke, you horrible bitch! We’re going to cover you in chalk and bury you in the mud! You –

Can I: I’ve got your eyelid. Feel that?

Littul: …

Can I: And I’ve got your tongue, and I could pull it right out of your head before you bite down on my fingers. Feel that?

Littul: …

Can I: So take your hands off my throat.

Littul: …

Can I: All you animals on the edges, I can see you. I’m memorising your faces. You want to be stepping back behind your pokies, behind your bar, behind that roulette wheel. Or maybe you want to keep coming closer. What do you think?
…my throat is burning. That was stupid. That was stupid of me, that was stupid of you. You’re trying to turn this into torture, and it doesn’t have to be. My throat is killing me, I need an orange.

peel

Can I: Want an orange? Okay, well you can have a piece of this if you change your mind. Tell me, how was that ever going to work?

Littul: I can’t even imagine what it must be like in your head. That you can bring yourself to do this over and over again – your brain must be stewing with river mud and razorblades. I mean it’s a horrible thing that you had to swing, but you’re a poison sadist for volunteering to pass it on. …Can I have a bit of that orange?

Can I: Here you go.

Littul: When did you request me? When Rory was… gave them my name?

Can I: Tortured. You can say it, it’s not a secret.

Littul: He never even said my name to me, not as long as I remember. He called me – he called me – but he never said my name, not to me. I half thought he didn’t know my name. I never told him not to call me by my name, but he never – I don’t remember him ever using it…

Can I: Of all the throats going through the noose, yours deserves to sing. I want – I want to – give that to you. But – listen, don’t go down into yourself, listen to me – they are going to have you. There are no one in a thousand chances. You’re going through the rope. But I swear
I promise you
I can make it good.
I can make it sweet and soft and you moaning and sobbing and your face like a bird struck with lightning
pleasure
I can hold you there
hook you and dangle you with one little finger inside
can make you scream and shake yourself into a whole new world shredded together out of orgasm paper –
I want to. I want to.

Littul: How long does it take?

Can I: Don’t know. Some people, a few hours. Sometimes a lot longer.

Littul: You?

Can I: Me? Four months ago.

Littul: What did you do?

Can I: Nothing as righteous as you. You should be proud.

Littul: I should have known better.

Can I: You knew – you knew –
They said ‘She’s deliberately set loose a saboteur in the system.’
They said ‘She’s jettisoned a valuable commodity in order to deliver it to its own savagery’ (they said).
They said ‘She’s angry because she has to give a good hard cock away in spits and shackles.’
‘Her family (they said) once was a Family – now one decaying lady and a couple of barely sapient cousins crawling around a shrunken garden –
‘No workers (they said) no servants no soldiers no human flesh to rise on the back of, and all she feels now is anger (they said) and only anger because she can’t afford dresses to sweep the floor at every function, can’t sponsor every expedition and have her name inscribed on every raft that pushes past the waves –
‘She feels hatred because of how little she has left (they said) and so she’s deliberately set loose a saboteur in the system.’
I thought you were a woman risen above her own lies.
You untied the knot. Why should you, of anyone who has ever swung, why do you have to shake and quiver and burn up piece by piece? What for? You earned a sweet farewell and to trickle through the loop in a daze of orgasms.

Littul: It was the way he looked – the start of it was – his legs looked – I thought they’d – when they moved – I thought they were running – I didn’t think – and how he smelled, how he smelled when I found him – very very cheap back then he was very very cheap back then he got more expensive as he got – his voice for starters, it was breaking and cracking, but when he got his man’s voice he sounded beautiful – his voice in my hair – his voice in my hair – he never said my name, he called me – he called me – his voice in my garden and the wind over trees – wind over the fence in the dark – I thought he’d keep quiet – I thought he’d slip under – he had strong arms I thought he’d swim – cross the rivers, or sneak through the swamp – he was out of my reach I thought – out of everyone’s reach I thought – it was the way his legs looked – moving – his legs moving –

Can I: Tell me.

Littul: I thought he might stay – even after I untied the knot I was waiting for him to say – maybe I won’t go – maybe I’ll stay –

Can I: He was grateful.

Littul: He was tortured.

Can I: He was grateful. Even when they started on him he was grateful. He looked up at the roof and said no thing but he looked up at the roof and somewhere he was still gripping you –

Littul: He gripped me –

Can I: Tell me.

Littul: He laced his hands behind my head and put his face – his face down on me – you’re not – you’re not –

Can I: Shut your eyes – his face –

Littul: His face down on me – and his tongue – climbing – to the light –

Can I: to the –

Littul: to the light – but you don’t smell – you don’t smell like him – no –

Can I: No, let me – his smell, let – no, don’t – his smell –

Littul: bleach – and dirt – and wind, and cold, and rust from old chains – and his knee between my legs – and his fingers digging into my wrists – climbing –

Can I: climbing –

Littul: to the light – to the light –

Can I: lie back – part you – you

Littul: don’t – don’t – you don’t sound – you don’t sound –

Can I: his voice –

Littul: not his voice, his breath – in my ear, on my cheek – he called me – all over my mouth, he called me – and his tongue – and his fingers climbing – his nails in my wrists – climbing to the light – to the light –

Can I: and his fingers –

Littul: and the dirt against my back – and the grass – against my – he called me – you – you –

Can I: I can make you sing –
Littul on the grass – on the grass on the dirt –
Can I sing –

Littul: to the – to the – climbing to the –

infect

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end

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Hate Restaurants production images

In July 2005, Canberra Youth Theatre produced a ‘gutteral degustation’ of four short plays entitled Whineing and Dying, including hate restaurants and Hadley’s lateforbreakfast monologue.

Estelle Muspratt directed hate restaurants and it were delightful.

Billy (John “Savage Johnny” Barrington) is not impressed with Louise (Sigrid Senger).

Louise (Sigrid Senger) encounters a Little Friend of Science (Mick Keane). Just One… of the many.

Lucille (Rachel Robertson) is the chef and owner of this restaurant which we hate.

Toby (Dave Caust) and one snapping finger.

More on the Canberra Youth Theatre website.

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Hate Restaurants reviews

So: three reviews of Hate Restaurants from the Labfest performances. Three out of three of them politely, objectively and definitively destroy it. I can’t say I blame them – without trying to wriggle out of anything, Hate Restaurants is a piece I wrote more than 6 years ago, and I honestly believe that I’m better than that now. Nevertheless, as much as I’d like to disassociate myself from the bad press, these three reviewers have done me the courtesy of engaging with the work and I am honoured and grateful enough to want to respond.

First of all, from maninisid.blogspot.com:

Pregg and I agreed that the weakest play to us was Hate Restaurants. I did not empathize with any of the eccentric characters in the play (except maybe the chubby girl who had an amazing way of laughing during her short scene). There is no connection with me, so that I could have felt what they were feeling. Is it because it was written in English by an Australian? Or is it because the layers of characterization and ironies of the cast were unclear to me? Or maybe, I just did not get it.

Much as I’d love to say ‘You didn’t get it because it was written in English by an Australian’, the truth is that you didn’t get it because there’s nothing really to get. There are no layers of characterization and irony, clear or otherwise.

Secondly, from johnryanrecabar.wordpress.com – ‘Complexity and Disengagement of the play Hate Restaurants’:

In a world that inadvertently drives everyone to insanity, holding on to that precious strand of normalcy can be pretty challenging, disregarding, of course, the fact that even the very definition of normalcy is also open to question. In the play Hate Restaurants by Australian playwright David Finnigan, the predicament of the character Toby as she confronts all the characters who are in the verge of dementia or already enmeshed within its webs plays the central theme.

I was honestly unable to comprehend at first the direction the play is heading during the first few minutes. I thought I was being led to expect something close to a deconstructionist, structuralist, or simply a surreal theatrical presentation that will go into the dangerous waters of exaggerated profundity, an act too perilous as to try to be more intelligent than the audience, considering that first and foremost art must be enjoyed, not to be dissected as if it is a piece of cadaver awaiting for an autopsy.

In all fairness, I think I should point out that I never intended Hate Restaurants to try to be more intelligent than the audience. I did hope that an audience would enjoy it rather than dissect it, but if a piece of theatre dies on stage, it’s entirely appropriate to perform an autopsy to figure out why; and Recabar is certainly thorough.

But as the play progressed, in fact it is rather long, an hour based on my estimate, the characters are allowed to unveil their true identities and there under the glaring spotlight the character’s static identities are exposed. Each has his or her simple cartoonish complexities, each representing a kind or personality devoid of any possibility to develop into a mature character that the audience can sympathize with; each is placed inside a box, and remains boxed until the play’s conclusion.

Simply put, each of them seems to represent a specific mental illness in a psych ward. A class reunion of used-to-be-patients of mental institution showing some recurring symptoms of their illnesses every now and then – the bipolar Toby, Cyclothymic Lucille, mildly autistic Billy suffering from episodic hypomania, schizoid (or simply inebriated) Louise, anorexic leader of the Little Friends of Science, and the probably-bulimic assistant to the leader of the Little Friends of Science.

Not to belabor the point, all the characters lack pathos and poignancy.

This is the crux of the review, and the key failure of the script. I don’t mind characters with ‘cartoonish complexities’ that are ‘devoid of any possibility to develop’, but the point is that if your characters are completely 2-dimensional, they’d better be so sparklingly hilarious that the audience doesn’t mind the lack of depth. Not to belabor the point, the characters in Hate Restaurants are not sparklingly hilarious.

A friend pointed out that the reason of its complexity is the fact that it has a middle-class sensibility, the members of this class being more psychologically complicated than the rest of the population. But it’s quite hard for me to agree with this view simply because all of the characters, except for the members of the Little Friends of Science that transcend class categorization, are members of the working class. In fact all of them are overworked, including the owner of the restaurant Lucille, a fact that can explain the absurdity of their actions. Moreover, this play, written by an Australian using his country’s realities as a vantage point, is simply too detached from an Aussie middle class experience.

The class reading of this is interesting, and probably the closest I came to actively reflecting my country’s realities in the play. I would suggest that two of the characters (the chef and the kitchen-hand) are working class and the other two (the waiter and waitress) are dilettante members of the middle-class (both are underachieving university students). Beyond that, I’m curious as to how Recabar feels the play is ‘too detached from an Aussie middle class experience’.

It is a complexity that went out of control, I believe. For a one-act play, the characterization fails to support the apparent simplicity of the plot. It is too much of this that made the play seems bloated and the audience, as a result, became incontinent by the play’s end.

Allow me to concur that nearly an hour is too long a running time for this piece, which should be a brisk 30-40 minute comic sketch at most.

My professor in Literature, Dr. Leoncio Deriada, in UP once mentioned in our class that incomprehensibility does not make a piece of work inferior. I beg to differ. Oh I failed to mention, Billy the Rat, has the most profound character development in the story; from a lowly, decapitated, big, black rat to a cute, docile looking rodent in the end.

And let me confess that Billy the Rat’s development from decapitated rat to docile rodent is not in the script; the most profound character arc in the play is the work of director J Victor Villareal and co.

Lastly, the most intriguing (and possibly the most damning) review of all was from mossgreentrunks.wordpress.com:

Hate Restaurants is a play I love and hate at the same time because it unintentionally gives a glimpse of how the Filipino conyotic and burgis (read those nakaka-asar-as-in-grabeh- guys from Ateneo, La Salle, and College of Business Administration in UP) probably think and act, which is stupidly funny and offensive at the same time.  I love it because I’ve many friends whose real life tragedies and dramas revolve around their crazy officemates.  I hate it because, shit, they seem to live in Mars and not in the Philippines where many people’s daily problems are getting hungry, sick, and being oppressed/exploited.  The play is utterly devoid of issues such as poverty or corruption in the country.  It’s about weird middle class people in weird middle class situations with weird cults driving every possible normal person/place under its dominion.  The characters speak in English in the accent of the conyotic yuppies in Makati.  The setting is in a restaurant that could be somewhere in Makati, Ortigas, Manhattan, San Francisco, who cares!  It doesn’t matter, because they’re all urbanites with urban concerns and urban sense of paranoia.

Plot: very sane cute girl works as a chef in a restaurant that is owned by very insane woman who’s madly in love with her insane and supercilious macho but nerdy-looking chef employee who himself hates everyone in his workplace, especially this other insane and sadako-looking manager-employee.  One day, restaurant is invaded by people from friends of science cult who look like haughty Makati office girls and who don’t eat flour, only barley.  Each person from the restaurant is eventually converted to the friends of science, and sane cute girl uses flour with all her might to defend herself  from these mad people.  There is another character in the play, the mouse, who is beheaded and who in the end reappears to kill his butcher.

(Side note: this plot synopsis is the best thing in the world and this is how I’m describing the play from now on if anyone asks.)

Okay, so this is probably satire, or making fun of the often weird-acting and weird-looking city people.  I love the way the play concerns itself with the neurosis of the middle class, their issues with co-employees, officemates, boss, and other people who have a world of their own.  For this play to be shown to a middle class audience who probably share the dilemmas of the characters in the play but who live in a third world country is so… perfect!  In one level, I can clearly relate with the problems of the sane cute girl and I can identify people I know who are exactly like the weird neurotic characters in the play.  In another level, because the play does not tell me where it is set or does not even attempt to make a statement about glaring issues about poverty or corruption – clearly the “real” truths about the place where I live – I feel alienated by the play.  It’s as if it doesn’t give a shit about theater’s moral obligation (is there?) to address gripping issues that affect/afflict its audience.  In this sense, it’s very academic.  It doesn’t have a political view or leaning to preach to its audience, it just presents the lives of a composite group – the middle class – and its sensibilities.

But Filipino middle class are nuanced by the ever present face of poverty.  Who doesn’t have a yaya who’s poor or a driver whose family lives in the squatter’s area?  And from what I’ve studied in college, middle class Filipinos do not necessarily have Western middle class sensibilities or culture capital (yes, after Bourdieu).  In short, a Filipino chef who may live in a condo unit in The Fort and drives a Honda may have different values and concerns compared to his contemporaries in Sydney or London.  She may probably have poor relatives, or parents totally dependent on her, or she may be sending several siblings to school.  The play is therefore actually very alienating even to middle class Filipinos, except maybe to those few who come from Ateneo or La Salle, grew up in gated communities, chauffeured to “safe” places in Metro Manila, and whose idea of poverty is getting a second-hand iPod instead of a brand new.

This is a criticism that I could never have anticipated, and one which I don’t think I can defend against. Hate Restaurants was a vitriolic piece of scorn directed at the miserable world of restaurant-servitude, written when I was 19 between midnight and 5am when I had to leave to start my breakfast shift at the Pancake Parlour. I didn’t and I don’t believe that theatre has a moral obligation to (consciously) address issues relating to its audience, but I believe that a well-written play will naturally reflect and shed light on these issues. Hate Restaurants is not a well-written play; let’s get that out of the way straight away. But if it had been well-written, would it still have alienated its Labfest audience? Could the script have been changed in some way to reflect the values and concerns of Filipino restauranteurs, or was it doomed to sit uncomfortably in a Manila festival no matter what was done to it?

Part of me would love to be able to palm the responsibility for the play’s failure to connect on the difficulties of translating an Australian work into the Philippines milieu. A larger part of me is convinced that it could have connected with its audience if I’d done something different; I’m just not sure what.

Hate Restaurants

We hate restaurants. Hate them. In particular, any restaurant owned by the scientologists within which I ever had to work. This script was written in 2005 between midnight and leaving to go mix pancake batter.

When the owner/chef of a restaurant is incapacitated due to infected rat-bite, kitchenhand Toby is left in charge of preparing breakfast for a conference breakfast of seventy businessmen while simultaneously managing the conflicting personalities of the waiting staff.

Download Hate Restaurants as a Word doc.

In July 2005, Canberra Youth Theatre produced a ‘gutteral degustation’ of four short plays entitled Whineing and Dying, including hate restaurants and Hadley’s lateforbreakfast monologue. The review (Emma Gibson in the Canberra Review):

And for sweet dessert, David Finnigan took a couple of twisted ideas, twisted them around even more and stuck them together. His Hate Restaurants is the bizarre story of a crazed restauranteur who bites the head off a rat and uses its blood to write a message declaring her love for the neurotic maitre’d, played by Johnny Barrington. The story gets even better when a cult of mammal-loving, wheat-fearing lobotomy victims arrive and manage to convert the vacant, bitchy waitress (hilariously portrayed by Sigrid von Senger) as they take over the restaurant.

Lo! it is images from the production.

And reviews! Reviews from the Labfest production in Manila in 2009.

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