Ah yes, that elusive state we all strive for – happiness. But what does it mean to be truly happy? What has it meant down through the ages? What does it mean to YOU?
These are some of the questions posed by acting students from Curtin University in this 90 minute, self-devised production that is comprised of vignettes from moments in history, dance, direct audience interaction, various narrators, and even a ‘happy counsellor’.
The last of which I became acquainted with after being asked a question early on in proceedings and led out to the ‘happy room’ downstairs where I had a nice chat with said counsellor and sampled the assorted creams. (We agreed that the Monte Carlo is clearly the best choice in this regard. Another two audience members also had ‘counselling sessions’ though I can’t vouch for their biscuit preference!)
Back inside and the Neanderthals are giving way to Philosophy as we start asking questions about the nature of happiness and our place in the world before Religion arrives to shut down this practice and provide a ‘definitive’ answer (as Joan of Arc discovers in a re-enactment of her fiery demise). The discovery of Capitalism declares Money to be the new God before Power takes over and finally Freedom presents us with an overabundance of Choice. These moments are played with the majority of the company of some 35 actors on stage and I apologise for not naming the individuals until the end of this review as I am unfamiliar with most of them. Included in this are some four narrators deployed at various stages - setting the scene, interacting directly with the audience and each other, with one even asking questions of the actors.
This is where the piece really shines because within the overarching construction of the ‘history’ there are recurring scenes - essentially two-handers - that examine different aspects of happiness and, interestingly, love.
The standout of these is a couple who are shown, mainly through dance, falling in love, being in love, falling out of love, then reconciling, with, if I interpret the last beat of the last scene correctly, impending parenthood. This was beautifully acted and handled.
Then there’s the anorexic egged on by his subconscious to exercise and lose weight, ever more weight, otherwise he is a disgrace. This arc has both dark and light with some nice comic moments by the two actors including an old-fashioned surprise that I won’t spoil but was a ‘laugh-gasp-out-loud’ moment.
We have two obsessive-compulsives who find each other after separate dates at the same restaurant go horribly wrong due to their ‘weirdness’. Again, full of humour but also a nicely narrated commentary about how love is sometimes about when two people find and accept each other’s weird habits and obsessions.
There is also a virginal, God-fearing woman in white hounded by a black clad Satan that has an interesting role reversal as the theme of Power is introduced in the context of relationships and how we handle that.
Lastly, there are six actresses who we see as young children around the age of 5-6 drawing on the back wall of the stage; then later as teenagers in what ends up being a quite raunchy sequence with the other cast joining them on stage doing what teenagers do; then as young mothers, and finally as elderly women. They are questioned by one of our narrators about what makes them happy, about their life choices, work choices, regrets, and the like. This personal history dovetails nicely with the larger history being told. There is a quiet highlight at the end of this sequence when the ‘surly’ one gives a quite moving plea to allow yourself to be marked by the dirt of life lest you end up in a nursing home alone, childless, with no friends.
When A History of Happiness first started it felt a little chaotic but then all these different threads were slowly deployed and this construction for a self-devised piece is quite elaborate and thematically impressive. There is also a great sense of zest in the performances and you can see the time and care the cast have invested. This is reinforced at the end when one of the actors simply states that being on stage performing is what makes the cast happy and it’s a wonderfully genuine and heartfelt statement. The cast sing Pharrell’s smash hit ‘Happy’ (of course) as they dance their way off stage before the audience is entreated to go out and find their own happiness.
This is a fun show with great use of humour and movement but it is also quite perceptive in its interrogation of what happiness is for without showing the dark how can we truly know the light?
There are three more performances, 12-14 June, upstairs at the Hayman Theatre and stars the Curtin University Performance Studies Devised Class of 2014: Zoe Barham, Samantha Barrett, Roisin Bevan, Holly Dodd, Danen Engelenberg, Rachel Foucar, Amy Johnston, Georgia Knox, Josh Lang, Lachie MacDonald, Kayla MacGillivray, Jim Maxwell, Gemma Middleton, Ashleigh Morris, Ellie Morrison, Amri Mrisho, Daniel O'Brien, Monty Sallur, Nicole Sandrini, Polly Seah, Aaron Smith, Emma Smith, Georgia Smith, Georgia Spencer, Madison Stirling, Zara Suryani, Nattida Thongin, Amelia Tuttleby, Savannah Wood and Judy Young.