Old Fitz Theatre, June 29


Thom Paine is a paradox wrapped in an accident that may happen again while we’re watching. That’s the wonder of US playwright Will Eno’s hour-long one-hander: it stays dangerous even when you know the play; never sheds its unpredictability. You can test that theory, because actor Toby Schmitz performs it live each night this week in an empty Old Fitz – other than for nine cameras.

Those cameras become an audience whom Schmitz addresses, this not being a monologue that’s insulated from its onlookers (like, say, Happy Days), but one where they’re the actor’s silent interlocutors. He confides in them. And, with a perversity that Thom would relish, this is precisely what makes it thrive on screen, in what the producers call “live performance made for film” rather than “filmed theatre”.

Toby Schmitz. Photos: Trent Suidgeest.

The difference may seem semantically flimsy, but, had there been a post-virus audience shifting uneasily from buttock to buttock before Schmitz’s gaze, we, watching on a screen, would just be voyeurs. Instead we are mercilessly engaged by the most complete work (in any idiom) I’ve seen live-streamed, directed by Andrew Henry and Schmitz in a joint production between Redline and filming/streaming company Tribal Apes.

The rows of empty seats compound the sense that Thom’s attempt to engage us is, in his own mind, falling upon stony ground, and into a disturbing internal dialogue (echoed occasionally in our seeing two or even three Schmitzes). Dressed in a suit and tie, he could have blundered from some drab office into this phantom zone of lights and cameras, where memories, fantasies, paradoxes, idle thoughts and flitting possibilities come reeling at us in what is not so much a stream of consciousness as a river, tumbling over the rapids of reality.

Devoid of sentimentality, Thom nonetheless seethes with feelings, and however dry Schmitz’s delivery – and Eno wanted it this way – we are inexorably drawn in. The childhood memories are especially macabre, as when an electrocuted dog flies through the air “like some poorly thought-out bird”. Do such memories account for Thom’s damaged psyche, or does the damaged psyche account for the story?

Thom wants us to report afterwards we saw not someone being clever, but someone who was “trying”. That’s his euphemism for “coping” with the desperate business that’s consuming us all as we deal with “scribbled feelings” – like the black hole of pathos in another childhood story of being stung by a swarm of bees. The writing is a fine weave of the minutiae of sadness, sex, longing, amusement, wondering and regret, and in one of many moments of profundity masquerading as mundanity, Thom tells us of a romance: “I disappeared in her, and she, wondering where I went, left.”

Tonally adroit, Schmitz offers the detachment of one who has been burned too often or too badly to dare to expect anything than more of the same. He keeps his performance on a tight leash, because Thom, one of millions of human husks barely holding on, is on one himself, lest he succumb to his “fear of fear”. Schmitz sustains the humdrum boy-next-door factor, while we infer the wondrousness. All that hinders the production is a brittleness and unevenness to the sound quality.

Given his perpetual confusion, Thom asks us where we are supposed to learn about things, and the answer, when the work is this good, is perhaps in a theatre – even if he’s the only one there.