This livestreamed production – performed by Toby Schmitz at The Old Fitz in Sydney – may be a courageous and necessary step into the breach the pandemic has created, but it also born of a tangible sense of futility and loss – adding further twists to the labyrinth of metadrama on which Eno’s rambling, nonlinear monologue relies.
Thom Pain has been compared to late Samuel Beckett – it too rests on the precarious architecture of stand-up comedy, lyricism and doomed half-parable. But the remorseless self-consciousness and coolly ironic style (the piece is riddled with snide deflations, manipulative plays, sometimes outright hostility to the audience) bears closer relation to the “hideous men” of David Foster Wallace than what Beckett referred to as his “creatures”.
Beneath its self-dramatisation and intellectual cladding lies a sincere desire to share the pain, the bewilderment, the exultation of being alive. Those moments – where Thom relates the death of a childhood dog, or the agony of being stung by bees; later a love affair in young adulthood (“I disappeared in her and she, wondering where I went, left.”) – are the most effective in Toby Schmitz’s performance.
They also tend to be parts where the direction – conceived more as live cinema than theatre – reaches for intriguing possibilities, such as visual ghosting to invoke the feeling of memories relived.
But rapport with a live audience is baked into the script. A plant is supposed to walk out in disgust early on, a fake raffle fails to be held; audience participation looms, the fourth wall totters and falls.
None of that works as intended. And watching Schmitz stumble over interactions delivered to an empty theatre, a non-existent audience, is a desolating experience. It is not for want of the actor’s comic ability that it falls flat. Schmitz’s charm and wit have enlivened big-time productions of The Importance of Being Earnest and Much Ado About Nothing; he has little left to prove on that score.
No, it is the energy in the room that is missing, and it may make audiences less inclined to forgive the indulgences, the frustrations and even cruelties Eno inflicts upon them. Indeed, it’s possible the one thing that makes Thom Pain bearable is, in fact, being there.