The Performance by Claire Thomas is published with Weidenfeld & Nicolson and has been described as ‘the perfect novel for our times, speaking to our anxieties and hopes, while also establishing itself as a classic in the making’.
Set in a theatre in Melbourne, The Performance is quite unlike any book I have read before. Three women from various backgrounds are watching a live performance of Happy Days, the 1960s play by Samuel Beckett. It is a two-act play and, as the bushfires rage on in the outskirts of the city, we sit through the play with these women. We get insights into their lives as they flit between the play and their own thoughts. They arrive at the play, they watch the play and then they leave when it is finished. The Performance is very much about what happens in between.
I have a huge admission to make before I continue. I have never read Beckett and I have never seen or heard any Beckett before. Was this a disadvantage to me while reading The Performance? I would say it was. The play centres around Winnie, a woman who I suspect symbolises mother-earth. She is trapped in a mound of earth up to her waist in Act 1 and, in Act II it is only her head that the audience can see above the earth. Winnie is accepting of this situation, one where she is gradually disappearing. All sounding very odd indeed but I am sure that there are more apt descriptions elsewhere that will explain the premise a lot better.
Interspersed throughout the tale are occasional lines from the play as Winnie’s voice is heard above the thoughts of our main characters.
Margot is at the show on her own. Her husband isn’t well and now Margot, in her 70s, is remembering their lives and the decisions she made. A very accomplished character, Margot sits and considers her choices in life through the years and thinks about what the future now holds for her. Her position at work is on shaky ground and Margot can feel her life spiralling out of her control.
Ivy is a woman of inherited wealth who is a financial contributor to many causes but wishes to always remain anonymous and in the background. Ivy did not have it easy early in life and now, sitting with her best friend Helen at the play, she recalls her past and the challenges she has had to overcome. Ivy is struggling underneath the veneer and she exposes herself a little to the reader as her internal thoughts distract her from concentrating on Winnie.
Summer is a young girl working part-time as an usher in the theatre in the hope that the experience will enhance her studies. But instead it has only given her more time to think about her life and her girlfriend. Summer has anxiety issues and, while she sits in attendance during the performance her mind constantly drifts into worry and anxiousness. Summer worries about everything – about her own life, about the environment and the damage humanity is inflicting on it.
The internal monologues of these three women struggling in their lives are intertwined with Winnie’s on-stage dialogue providing the reader of The Performance with a very profound experience. Claire Thomas has written a very interesting book that has a very strange appeal and is most definitely a quirky read. I expect that I am completely the wrong audience for The Performance, as any Beckett references went right over my head, but I can still see the excellence in the writing and the concept behind this book. The Performance is an off-beat, smart, intense and unconventional novel and an ode to Samuel Beckett, a man I can only assume is greatly admired by Claire Thomas.
(c) Swirl and Thread
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