Theatre review: The Director, reUnion district, Launceston

The Director merges the realms of theatre and funeral directing, alongside the tragic and the comic.

The Director, created by Lara Thoms, with Scott Turnbull, Aaron Orzech and Lz Dunn, explores the funeral industry. Aphids Co-Artistic Director Lara Thoms and Scott Turnbull perform the work, which is episodic, shifting between non-verbal re-enactment, narration and conversation between the two performers.

Katie Sfetkidis’ design seamlessly mimics the cool institutional aesthetic of the old TAFE classroom where the work is presented. The sound design by Kenneth Pennington underpins the unadorned performance style of the work with circular distortions and resonances. 

Turnbull is a former funeral director, and brings to the work his lived experience of attending respectfully to the dead, and serving bereaved families, arranging funerals, cremations and burials. The conceit of the show revolves around Turnbull assessing how effectively Thoms completes the daily tasks of the funeral director. In the opening scene we witness her carefully dress Turnbull, who lies corpse-like on a mortuary trolley, his head supported by a box of Weetbix.

It’s a fascinating insight into how the deceased are prepared for viewing, ceremony and internment. Turnbull sits up and critiques her dressing technique, then talks her through the process of cremation, while Thoms carefully places two Weetbixes in a microwave as metaphors for incineration. 

Thoms then begins to critique Turnbull’s performance, and the sly double meaning of the show’s title is revealed. Here the work falters – as Thoms doesn’t assist her colleague with a comparable degree of skill or insider knowledge about performance practice. ‘Stay focused, stop fidgeting and take a breath’ doesn’t really capture any of the detail of the performer’s craft – it’s a long way from Turnbull’s expertise in funerary practice.

There’s a missed opportunity here for a real exchange of professional skill, and a deeper exploration of how we perform our roles in public and private spaces. Turnbull tells us (or is he telling Thoms?) that InvoCare, a large corporation, owns most of the funeral homes in Australia, and hides behind the comforting business names of family-owned funeral parlours.

He runs through the expenses incurred for a funeral and internment, and estimates the profit margin for each item. The material is equal parts fascinating, grotesque and confronting, and delivered with a certain cool – the performers are insiders sharing knowledge that initially doesn’t reach into the emotional muck of loss and bereavement. While watching the work, I started to wonder about how we the audience were being cared for – was there anyone here recently bereaved? Who was the performance for? 

In a sequence sharing the songs people choose for their loved ones’ funerals, stereotypical mourners are matched to songs. We are told that ‘The Wind Beneath My Wings’ is popular with people who have big earrings and flowing dresses. This gets a laugh – it’s funny – but I find myself hoping that no one present has chosen this as the send-off for a loved one. But then, perhaps those kinds of folk don’t come to this kind of theatre? Is this the assumption underlying the work – the thing that has me worried about why we are here, and who is here?

Towards the end of this sequence, personal anecdotes emerge. Thoms shares the songs played at the funerals of her parents. It’s a suddenly personal and lived experience of grief, but it’s hard to know how to ‘place’ this moment in the experience of watching. Thoms also reveals that Turnbull lost his job as funeral director, perhaps connected to his compassionate care for a deceased refugee.

Read: Performance review: Kae Tempest, Perth Festival

The Director concludes with accounts of shared experience and loss, but swerves away from the implications of sharing these emotional stories with an audience, and the surface of the work remains unbroken, the emotion tightly held.

The Director by Lara Thoms, with Scott Turnbull, Aaron Orzech and Lz Dunn

reUNION district, Old TAFE, Launceston
Performers: Lara Thoms and Scott Turnbull
Designer: Katie Sfetkidis
Sound: Kenneth Pennington
Mona Foma, Fantastic Futures, 

The Director was performed from 17-19 February 2023 and will be staged at Platform Arts in Geelong from 22-25 March 2023 .

Jane Woollard is a director and playwright, and Senior Lecturer Theatre and Performance, University of Tasmania.