Ben Law’s new play, Torch the Place, is a story of family, secrets, and the strange ways that trauma and tragedy can shape relationships with those we love and the things we own.
The play, a collaboration with the Melbourne Theatre Company, begins with three very different siblings coming together to help their mother (Diana Lim) clear out a home packed so full of stuff – family artefacts, old magazines, pictures, and literal garbage – that she’s facing eviction from the local council.
Law describes the play as “your classic family, black comedy/drama”. Family is at the centre of much of Law’s work.
“When you put any family on stage, you’ve immediately got a drama I’m interested in, because family in itself is just a hotbed of narrative tension. You’ve always got these obligations to people, and you simultaneously love them ferociously and they’re also the people who can cause you the most pain,” he says.
The siblings in this story clearly cause one another plenty of pain. While younger brother Toby (Charles Wu) is offering socialist critiques of materialism, the youngest sister, Natalie (Michelle Lim Davidson) is happily cashing in through her career as a social media influencer.
Teresa (Fiona Choi) is the driving force behind the push to clear the house.
While it delivers plenty of hilarious moments, at the heart of the story is something Law calls “one of the biggest mental illnesses of our time: compulsive hoarding disorder”.
“Stuff” is very much a real character in the play in the form of an extraordinary set that’s simultaneously beautiful and claustrophobic. It looms over both characters and audience and helps make the mother’s struggle to let go of objects many of us would consider trash feel real and relatable.
We all love stuff, indeed our material society is obsessed with it.
“We’ve all got our favourite outfits,” says Law. “We have all these sentimental objects.”
What distinguishes hoarders is that they attach special meaning to objects and take the attachments we all have with the things we own to extremes. Law’s decision to focus on hoarding was partly driven by the way it’s so often framed in the media.
“There’s a way in which we talk about hoarding that we don’t reserve for other mental illnesses. It’s not like we have reality TV shows about anxiety and depression, but we do about hoarding,” Law explains.
While every hoarder has their own story, trauma of some kind is often at the heart of the disorder.
“Some people might think that hoarders have broken brains, but what’s more core in how they came to be how they are is that they’ve got broken hearts,” says Law.
The play touches on sexuality and queerness.
“With anything I write, it is probably going to come from a queer perspective or a queer lens or have a queer sensibility about it.”
But the focus is very much on the exploration of the artefacts on stage.
Watching it felt like a journey through Australian pop-cultural history.
“I think one of the concepts that I wrestled with in the play or wanted to wrestle with the audience, was the sense that nostalgia can be so fun and nourishing, and we have such warm memories that are triggered off by nostalgia,” Law says.
“[In the 80s and 90s] we were all watching Hey Hey It’s Saturday at a certain point in time; we were all watching the same sort of shows. Everyone was obsessed with Princess Diana, Princess of Wales, and so I wanted to use that as a shared language because as much as this family might not seem like ours, you know, the Chinese Australian family, and we’re dealing with hoarding, they also have this shared language with the rest of the audience as well, no matter what cultural background they come from.”
Ultimately, Torch the Place is a work that delivers plenty of laughs and pathos and explores a complex subject with empathy. It’s well worth a look.
Torch the Place is playing at the Fairfax Studio, at the Arts Centre Melbourne until March 23rd.