‘I don’t get it,’ a man behind me pronounced loudly at the conclusion of Lally Katz’s Return to Earth. I wanted to sock him for his lack of empathy – didn’t he understand that others might be reacting to the play differently from him, that their reactions were equally valid, and that they weren’t asking for his opinion?
But I also have a tendency towards visible bodily reactions and comments in movies, so this was a good lesson for me.
I’ve experienced a spate of bad (or what I think is bad) theatre since I moved to Melbourne (here’s an example), and was feeling negative about Melbourne Theatre Company, too. So they’re trying to attract young people, with $30 tickets for under 30s, but they don’t offer concession tickets. That said, you can go in at 9.00am and get Early Bird tickets for $18, admittedly a good discount on the usual $80. But then you have to sit in an awkward seat. At the last play we went to (which I found appalling), there were spare seats in better locations, and the ushers were quite reluctant to let us move – they asked us to wait until the lights went down.
But Return to Earth is really something. It’s about a Alice (she changed her name from Erika, presumably as part of some kind of awakening), a girl who’s been away for a while and comes back to Tathra, her hometown. The first scene sees her sitting with her mum and dad on the couch while they explain a game show they like to watch, one where you have to guess what answer the other contestants will give. That’s so wonderful, says Alice, wide-eyed. ‘You have to really understand humans.’
On her apparently long journey away from Tathra and into ‘outer space’, as it’s referred to, Alice has had ephiphanies that she’s now unable to communicate to anyone at home. Her parents are also apparently unable to understand why she was away for so long. But back in her ordinary yet absurd hometown, a place where the auto-repair and hospital are next to each other so that they can mend cars after accidents while people get treated and her mum is cross-stitching a doggie from a missing dog poster, she’s trying to find beauty in the everyday.
She wants to fall in love, and have a baby, and she romantically affixes herself to an emotionally intelligent fisherman and auto-mechanic. She wants to be a character in a soap opera, to be constantly shocked but never surprised at what people do. This comes across not as a self-aware coping mechanism in an uncomfortable environment, but an earnest imaginative endeavour. There is a genuinely poetic element to her imaginative fantasies and reveries, but by being so self-absorbed, as her friend points out, she misses the detail and texture of the reality that others are living.
In some ways, Alice is annoyingly oblivious, self-absorbed, and simplistic. But I think she’s a representation of a way of thinking more than anything, and I identified with her. I do that: romanticise things and get so wrapped up in my fantasies that sometimes I miss what’s actually happening, so that when I share my fantasy with people, they’re like, ‘What the fuck?’
There were a few awkward moments, parts where you could see the director’s (or writer’s?) manipulations and constructions too obviously, and it was a bit jarring. For me, most of these moments involved the inexplicable antics of Alice’s slightly insipid niece, who had cancer. But overall, I was amazed by the sophistication of Katz’s perceptions about people and their tensions, and the idea of the pull of a romanticised fantasy world versus the sometimes mundane (and often, nothing else) realities of home and family.
My friends suggested we go for a drink afterwards to analyse the film, and I almost didn’t want to – wanted to keep it to myself. It turned out that one liked it and the other didn’t, thinking Alice’s character was insufficiently developed. At some stage last night, we got to talking about reviews, particularly reviews about consumer items, and how, in an attempt to tell people whether or not something will appeal to them, they often use some kind of variation on ‘While some may think X, others may think Y.’ This would probably be a good template for a review of Return to Earth, but I’m not going to write it.