It was its setting and structure that attracted me to Claire Thomas’ The Performance, although that brightly coloured jacket played some part. A clever design which fits the novel well. As its title suggests, the backdrop for Thomas’ novel is a Melbourne theatre where three women are watching a performance of Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days in which Winnie first appears half-submerged in a mound of grass into which she sinks further in the second act while Willie is largely offstage. Meanwhile a bushfire rampages through the mountains overlooking the city.
Perhaps she should have been on the pill, to be sure, but she couldn’t stand what it did to her bust and to her personality – enlarged them both, in ways that were uncomfortable and difficult to manage
Margot arrives a little late. It’s her regular Friday night visit to the theatre, a place she comes as much to think as to watch the play. She’s a literature professor, fresh from an uncomfortable discussion with the dean about a retirement she resists taking. Once she’s ushered in all the late arrivals, Summer can sit down. She’s a drama student, grappling with anxiety about the environmental disaster our planet is hurtling towards. Ivy is rekindling her love of Beckett, the hero of her student years when she was a bright scholar working catering gigs to get by. Things are very different now: Ivy’s a philanthropist courted by fundraisers. These three encounter each other in the interval: Ivy delighted to be reunited with Margot for whom she was a star student but puzzled by the bruises she glimpses on Margot’s arms, then chatting with Summer as she serves the fussy canapes Ivy remembers all too well and inadvertently offending her. By the end of the performance, as Beckett’s Winnie sinks further into the ground and Willie seems incapable of rescuing her, much has been revealed about these three very different women.
But then things happened to Ivy, and she happened to things, and the huge whirling grey of complex experience fogged her crisp worldview, and humbled her
It’s a long time since any of us has enjoyed an evening at the theatre but I still remember that feeling of anticipation, settling in your seat, sometimes slightly irritated by the coughing of a fellow audience member or the territorial negotiation of the armrest, all vividly evoked here. Thomas structures her novel so that we spend a good deal of time in Margot, Summer and Ivy’s heads, bringing them together neatly at the interval before they return to their seats. Throughout it all runs the theme of climate change which, like Winnie increasingly submerged as Willie ignores her, is happening right outside our front doors while we fail to change our ways. I thoroughly enjoyed this witty, perceptive novel which hangs together beautifully as its characters unfold their stories through thoughts, memories and reflections, occasionally offering their views on the play enacted in front of them. I’d not come across Thomas’ debut, Fugitive Blue, but plan to get my hands on a copy soon.
Weidenfeld & Nicolson: London 9781474616980 304 pages Hardback