The Performance (Hachette 2021) by Claire Thomas is set entirely over the course of a theatre performance of Beckett. The auditorium is artificially cold and draughty, a bold contrast with the bushfires that are raging outside the city and threatening the nearby hills. The story is narrated by three people.
Margot is an academic, a professor used to being in control of her life. A theatre subscriber, she has arrived at the performance without even a clear idea of what she is about to see. As the story progresses, we learn that her home life is beginning to get out of control, and she is struggling to make decisions about moral questions that she once would have thought very simple to answer. Ivy is a philanthropist, and the theatre is one of the charities she supports. She is distracted by the snoring man beside her, and contemplating her troubled past. Finally there is Summer, a young theatre usher, hoping each evening to see a bit more of the play in its entirety. Her girlfriend is out there somewhere in the fire zone, and Summer is distracted with anxiety and worry over her fate, and the safety of her girlfriend’s family.
The play unfolds, the dialogue and action on stage seamlessly combining with the three individual threads of the women’s stories. They are each thoughtful, contemplative and questioning, and by the end of the performance, they will each understand more about their worlds beyond the stage, somehow triggered by what has been going on onstage. The performance changes them.
This is a fascinating look at the interiority of women’s lives, from the professional to the domestic, from family to personal, from social to deeply intimate and introspective. It is witty and wise; the kind of novel that makes you think. The author explores some big issues including race, class, gender, masculinity, social ambition, wealth and poverty, domestic violence, mental health, parenting – and more specifically, mothering, climate change and social dynamics, and about what it is to be human.