The Performance has a wonderful premise. Three women are in a theatre in Melbourne, watching a performance of Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days, while forest fires rage outside. Margot is an academic in her sixties, a subscriber to the theatre who is taking her regular seat, unsure of what she has come to see. Summer is a drama student, working as an usher and learning from watching the performance multiple times. Ivy is a philanthropist and a long-time Beckett fan, there both because of her love of the work and because the theatre hopes she will fund them.
The narration mostly takes the form of the thoughts of the three characters in alternating chapters. This means there is no action as such, the story is told through each character’s reflections on her life, interspersed with her response to the play and the environment in the theatre. Thomas beautifully evokes that tension between immersion in the drama on stage, the distractions of the audience and the physical environment, and the intrusion of their own thoughts.
The format changes at the interval. This is the point at which the characters interact and is presented in the form of a play. This is clever for two reasons – it allows the reader to step outside the points of view of the characters, and it suggests that their interactions are themselves a performance of a kind, that in moving from interior monologue to action, they are playing a version of themselves and are conscious of how they are perceived.
I don’t want to say too much about the stories of the three characters because it would spoil the intricate unfolding. I did enjoy the way the thoughts and experiences of the characters played off against the words of the actors on stage (it definitely helps if you know Happy Days or something of Beckett’s life and works).
I did have a couple of reservations. One is that the treatment of climate change felt a bit heavy handed at times. It features in the forest fires, the staging of the play, and the thoughts of the characters, all running in the same direction. Although I sympathise with Thomas’s message, that did make it feel a little preachy. The novel might have benefited from something that ran antagonistic, or if readers were left to draw their own inferences.
I also felt that the novel needed a stronger ending. In a literary novel you don’t expect a dramatic climax, but as with Happy Days, I want to feel that something fundamental has shifted, and in this I didn’t.
All in all though, The Performance is an interesting novel with an innovative structure and worth a read if you like understated literary fiction.
I received a copy of The Performance from the publisher via Netgalley.
View The Performance on Goodreads
I definitely think being familiar with Beckett’s work would be advantageous when reading The Performance. It went a little over my head if I’m honest.
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I saw Happy Days at the West Yorkshire Playhouse years ago with Prunella Scales. Quite a few people walked out during the performance. I think they’d only come because they knew her from the telly and hadn’t realised what they’d let themselves in for!
I think Susan really enjoyed this one as well. (If I remember correctly.) From the newspaper review I read, I was immediately intrigued by the premise, but I think it’ll be some time before I get around to reading it. I know you likely can’t say much without spoiling, but I’m curious about the idea that you were hoping the ending would contain a stronger shift…some might feel that wouldn’t be possible during the length of time a performance unfolds in…I would imagine it’d be very hard to please all readers on this kind of element, when an uncomplicated ending can be divisive enough. Heheh
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I wasn’t looking for a big ending (I can see a car chase would not have been appropriate!) but writers like, say, Alice Munro or Elizabeth Strout make you feel something has irrevocably shifted even though not much has happened. I think Brood (the review I linked to) also pulls it off. But it’s difficult to say exactly *how* an author does it in these more subtle stories.