Why should we care about Jack? [by James Wenley]
Did you see Daffodils? Wasn’t it great? For Metro Magazine I named it best debut for the 2014 best in theatre wrap-up. Rochelle Bright and her Bullet Heart Club collaborators have acknowledged their sophomore work, The Deliberate Disappearance of my Friend, Jack Hartnett is like a much anticipated second album. The difficult second album. They’ve gone darker. There’s no light relief. Todd Emerson spends half of the show scowling at us. Musically, they no longer have the safety net of the kiwi pop song. I think they know that this time their show won’t be universally adored. I think they know that some people are going to walk out afterwards hating the show.
I hate that I have to write this, but that includes me.
I know what you might be thinking – James, you were just expecting another Daffodils and set yourself up to be let down. I wasn’t. I think their instinct for the tone and subject matter of Jack Hartnett was absolutely correct. They could have given us more of the same. That would have been the easy option. Instead, Bullet Heart Club are experimenting with genre, story, and song. Musically Abraham Kunin’s songs can’t be compared readily to any other musical show. I applaud that. But when I struggle to connect, when they deliver a hollow story and characters, when I’m sitting there actively willing the show to come to an end, that’s where I feel let down.
Todd Emerson is Oliver Hamilton, a finance man who gives private ratings 0-10 based on his (usually low opinions) of his colleagues intelligence. Todd Emerson is also Jack Hartnett, who goes awol in Europe in search for Anya, the love of his life who he’s been talking to online. The framing device is a You Tube video that Hamilton records after the fact. He says that before he blows his own brains out, he will record the true story of him and Hartnett: “You will know Jack”.
When Hamilton has to use Hartnett’s desk at work, he discovers a gun in the drawer, and an open Google docs screen where Hartnett is recording the events of his overseas search as they happen. Hamilton is drawn into Hartnett’s story. But the audience? Not so much.
There’s a point where Emerson as Hamilton turns to us, and says “Do you really care about Jack?”. Trouble is, we don’t care about Hamilton’s character either. In fact, I don’t care about much of it at all. The story has an intriguing premise, but the show doesn’t manage to find the hook at the beginning. Later, as Hartnett country hops in his search for his online lady, my attention is held. But the hook releases again as its reaches its conclusion.
The songs are a culprit. Firstly, the sound mix is tough. The lyrics are difficult to catch. From what I did pick up, none of the songs were advancing the narrative or telling me any more about the characters. It was hard to buy that it was Hamilton or Hartnett singing them. The songs set a mood, certainly, but the band was doing such an effective job underscoring the dialogue scenes that the mood is already more or less established. They undermine the narrative and bring the forward momentum of the plot to a crashing halt. Emerson sings the hell out of them, and the indie-rock vibe of Abraham Kunin’s songs would find an audience if released together on an album. But Jack Hartnett? It would have been stronger without them. In the penultimate song Close, when we should be holding our breaths in the emotional zenith of the show, I’m instead looking around at the bored faces of other audience members. At some stage in the process they needed to ask: what is it about this story that needs these songs?
Todd Emerson’s performance is what keeps me going. Doing double duty in both roles, he commandingly delivers their polar opposites. Conrad Newport’s direction makes good use of Daniel William’s crossed cat-walk stage, Jane Hakaraia’s lighting is chilling, and the band provide brilliant ambience.
The show pulls some Christopher Nolan narrative tricks to make us re-evaluate what has come before, but I can’t decide if this is like good Nolan (ie: Memento) or lazy Nolan (ie: Inception). There are plot points that don’t hold up to scrutiny, information that the other character shouldn’t have, and the whole YouTube conceit teeters on collapse. Normally, I would be tempted to go back and piece the puzzle together again, but again, I’ve not been given enough to care.
The program issues a challenge: “Let’s be honest – would you do it?”. Do what? Go overseas looking for a lady who is probably a scam artist? Commit fraud? No, probably not. The show wants to confront us, but in order to do so, we need to be allowed a way in, to be made complicit, before putting it back on us. Right now, it’s a very empty exercise.
“You will know Jack”. Good joke.
The Deliberate Disappearance of my Friend, Jack Hartnett is presented by Bullet Heart Club and Q Presents and plays at Q Loft until 8 August. Details see Q.