Theatre review: Request Programme

A devastating portrait of existential loneliness.

This performance exists at the overlapping of a Venn diagram of theatre and performance art: the audience is a deeply voyeuristic witness to a grinding ritual that seeks to perform a dark exorcism of Late Capital. Which is a bold statement, but the understated weirdness of this strange, tense work demands magnification to really get to grips with its subtle yet harrowing thesis.

The performance was staged in Detached, former home of Hobart’s sole newspaper, The Mercury. It’s now an amorphous and mutating cultural centre that houses a fabled art collection, and in which exhibitions, concerts and performance works like Request Programme take place.

It’s not a theatre: everything necessary for a theatrical performance must be brought in; every bit of necessary infrastructure has to be built. This essentially means a set can be purpose-built specifically for one play, and here is an extraordinary meticulous set, with the audience on three of four sides. It’s a convincing depiction of a small bedsit apartment: there’s even running water.

The complex realism is necessary because an audience must understand they not are watching a conventional play – they are staring through the walls into a solitary life. 

Jane Longhurst is an actor of demonstrated and convincing talent who has, over a period of some years, delved into the one person show; last year she gave an impressive and tough performance of Beckett’s Happy Days. Longhurst likes a challenge, and here she gives us a performance with no dialogue. The single character arrives home, gets changed, watches TV, turns off the TV and listens to a music request show on the radio, has a meagre dinner, works on sewing a quilt, goes to the toilet twice, washes up the dishes, stares at herself in a mirror, goes to bed and considers taking an overdose. 

Spoiler alert. 

It’s obvious from the outset that something like this will occur, and it doesn’t lessen the weight of the slow-landing blow when the quiet and appalling moment of ideation arrives.

Longhurst performs this action – counting pills to see if there’s enough to accomplish the outcome – with the same rigid determination to get the task completed she has established throughout the performance. It’s near-banal, and like everything that has led to that occurrence, it could be something that she does every day: that contemplating ending her life is something this character lives with, endlessly, until finally the dark night where the step is taken arrives.

It’s utterly chilling. How does someone live like this?

The answer is that it’s likely a lot of people do. A lot of people do their job, make someone else rich, and go home to a few hours of lonely pointlessness that they fill up with control and ritual until they sleep for a time only to get up and do everything again. This is the underbelly of a capitalist society that demands lives of pure function and replaces the need for meaningful human connection with work, transforming everything into labour and rewarding it with unfulfilling consumption. 

Read: Book review: Denizen, James McKenzie Watson

Longhurst is riveting in this role, managing to find a way to make the mundane actions fascinating. It’s a different sort of acting – these are not the fireworks of a thrilling performance, but a stern and dedicated commitment to the overall thesis of the work – the critique of the failing of contemporary life that harshly abandons people and reduces them to their economic output and ability to shop.

Longhurst and director Robert Jarman are not here to impress the audience with pleasing theatrical skill – rather, something is done with this skill. A statement is made. This is art that says something, that expects its audience to think and feel, to be shocked and angered. This is achieved; the work is very successful, the performance subtly magnetic and the staging mesmerising. 

Request Programme by Franz Xaver Kroetz
Translated by Katharina Helm

Detached Gallery, Hobart
Director: Robert Jarman
Lighting Design: Nicholas Higgins 
Sound Design: Jacky Collyer

Stage Manager: Saxon Hornett
Set design: Jon Bowling
Set Build: Paul Colegrave

Performed by Jane Longhurst
With the voice of Christopher Lawrence

Tickets: $45

Request Programme will be performed until 14 August 2022 as part of the part of the Beaker Street Festival.

Andrew Harper is a writer, artist and speaker based in Southern Tasmania. His work has been seen in Artist Profile, Un magazine, RealTime and eyeline. He writes a regular column on visual art for Tas Weekend.