The power of good theatre - indeed any good storytelling - is to transport us to a different time and place often to explore themes that at first may seem foreign but resonate in some way with a modern audience. That is certainly the case with this play which plunges us into a misogynistic world set in 1960s American suburbia where woman appear to only exist to serve and please men. The opening scene is a shocking and brutal reinforcement of this. It had me squirming with discomfort. That the hero of the story is a woman who craves freedom – of thought and deed – in this male dominated world is to be applauded. That she does so by murdering everyone who belittles and humiliates her by serving them poisoned coffee is subversive, confronting, and occasionally a source of deeply black comedy.
That woman is Gish played superbly by Beth Tremlett in an eye-catching performance. The range she displays is impressive and the arc from meek housewife to conniving murderess to a confident woman at the height of her powers at the end of the play (albeit with a wreckage of dead characters behind her) is outstanding.
The play opens on a domestic scene between husband and wife. I apologise as I was unfamiliar with most of the other actors and there was no programme to assist with who was playing what character. Let me say though, the young actor playing Gish’s first husband, John, had the unenviable task of being, let’s face it, a complete bastard. He does this well… very well in fact which was the source of my discomfort. Not only does he belittle and manhandle Gish, he forces her to perform a sexual act that is well staged (suggested not seen) but shocking in its perfunctory nature. This is after two of his friends, Michael and Zimmerman (who will come to feature in Gish’s life) have stopped by for a drink as men do.
Gish responds by serving John the poisoned coffee which leads to his painful demise. The subtlety Tremlett shows here with the barest hint of a smile as she watches her husband struggle is terrific.
The one male constant in Gish’s life is her overbearing father who immediately makes plans to have a man take over John’s business because, obviously, as a woman Gish couldn’t possibly do so. This ends up being Michael who Gish falls madly in love with and who moves in with her. Except her Mother (by process of elimination I’m thinking played by Eleanor Davidson), a good Christian woman, harangues her daughter for living in sin. Well, that’s the end of her as Gish serves up another deadly brew.
Michael, who can’t stand the sound of Gish’s two children at play - and more crucially the fact that they are John’s - refuses to marry her. On learning this, in a truly shocking beat, Tremlett’s glance towards the door behind which the children laugh seals their fate. As she takes the poison to their room there were audible gasps from the audience. It is a truly awful and tragic highlight and shows the depths to which the need for a man has permeated her psyche that Gish would sacrifice her children. That Michael continues to refuse marriage wanting to keep his options open spells the end for him - another coffee, another fatality. But not before she calls a priest to marry them just before he dies. This was an overtly funny scene that gave the audience a chance to genuinely laugh instead of the nervous “did he really just say that?” titters of discomfort throughout. The values on display were so utterly anathema to today’s society, leastways spoken out loud so brazenly.
And so the roster of coffee inspired deaths mount – her father who still insists she can’t run the business. Zimmerman who becomes another lover but yet again proves to be the same as any other man in her world. Gish’s brother newly returned from what appeared to be military service who wants to wrest control of the business from her, and even her female friend (Zoe Barham) for, well, gladly accepting her role as a plaything for her own husband.
In the end, Gish sits alone in front of the television, free at last… but at what cost?
I really liked this though I did have qualms. Every single man without exception is a bastard. Okay, maybe the priest might prove okay but don’t drink the coffee Father just in case. The play presents a very particular viewpoint but with no redeeming features in any of the men it tends to undercut any potential dilemma for Gish in the eyes of the audience. They all deserve it so they all get it. Case closed. The staging was very effective with a good set depicting the suburban household but the use of a pop soundtrack particularly early tended to dilute the drama. The tone was interesting because the start is so in your face that it’s only later I started to sense that there was a sporadic, deeply black, comedic heartbeat.
The performances - with American accents - were good but this is clearly a showcase for Tremlett’s talents as she’s hardly ever off stage and proves to be the standout. On the evidence of this performance and at only 18 she has a very bright future.
Written by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Directed by Michelle Endersbee and starring Beth Tremlett, Zoe Barham, Eleanor Davidson, Aaron Smith, Jamie Turner, Jeremy Bunny and Kane Parker, Bremen Coffee is on next Sunday night, 24 August, at the Hayman Theatre Upstairs at Curtin University.