The Daphne Massacre
October 18th, 2023
IO Performance’s final offering for 2023 is the second instalment of their Emerging Director's season; The Daphne Massacre by Donna Abella, directed by Caitlyn Stirling. This fast-paced absurdist satire puts the spotlight on body image, cosmetic surgery, and the unrealistic expectations of beauty in a bizarrely outrageous way.
Isabella is about to get married and has come to the dentist to receive “The Pleasure”, a pre-marital tradition of having all her teeth removed and be replaced with dentures. This procedure is sold as a way to save money and stay beautiful, because you “can’t put your kids through school if you’ve spent all your money on root canals.” An interesting and absurdly original concept which is aided by the introduction of the messianic figure of Daphne, a recent patient who is so brainwashed by the concept that she believes she has divinely supernatural healing powers thanks to her teeth. Every character we meet comes with an increasingly sadistic degree of absurd megalomania to help the show play in a far-removed world.
Caitlyn Stirling has assembled five very talented and reliably comic actors to play in this absurdist nightmare, but tragically to middling effect. Angie Collins plays Daphne, who surprisingly isn’t the main character as the title might suggest. Daphne is the most unhinged and delusional of all the characters, the patron saint of “teeth eater healers;” and is the biggest champion of the process, convinced that “The Pleasure” is beneficial. Collins rarely misses in her (so far) short stage career, and she again doesn't miss here, as she portrays Daphne with such naturalistic conviction that draws us in to the words she says as the relatability makes us want to know more.
Unfortunately, that isn’t the case with the other on-stage characters. Caitlin McCarthy as Isabella seemed to tip toe around the comedy of her character’s plights, letting the trepidation of the “character”, feel like an uncertainty in her own performance. I’m a big fan of McCarthy, but I don’t think she fully embraced this role in the way she needed to for her iconic wit and charm to shine through. Kirsten Landeg and Tash McCulloch brought energy and exuberance to their multiple roles, (majority of the time as the dentist’s nurses), however they came in so hot from the top of the show, that it left them with nowhere to go for the remainder of the run time. Absurdist comedy is best served when the acting is naturalistic but exaggerated, as Collins was able to manufacture. Absurdism is about identifying the absurdity of a situation more so than the absurdity of a character, although both are present in the text. In short, if you put naturalistic, yet slightly exaggerated, characters into an absurd situation, that is absurdism. Where if you put over the top, absurdly silly characters into a naturalistic and normal situation, well, you get weird looks. Both these situations can work in absurdism; however, I think more emphasis needs to be placed on the absurdist situation than on the craziness of the characters. I think Stirling had a missed opportunity in this regard.
I felt the show suffered on the whole from a lack of structure. It’s blistering pace (a run time of only 55 minutes), made it hard to follow and gave us no real time to sit in the moments of poignancy that the concept of the script demanded. I wouldn’t have been upset to sit for an extra twenty minutes if it meant we could take more time to process and empathise with the plights of the characters.
Visually however, the set design was a nice contrast to the dark themes of the play; a bubble-gum aesthetic that relaxed us into the ludicrous world of The Daphne Massacre, and the use of Silhouette projection of Jules Godman’s sadistic dentist and unrelentingly dismissive headmaster, really emphasised a “unrealistic” world, if simply that it looked like something out of a cartoon.
I think the discussions surrounding body image, body shaming and beauty expectations that were trying to be made are insightful and important discussions to have, however I don’t think that The Daphne Massacre’s script was as clever as it needed to be to ensure this message was received. However, if you are after a short sharp laugh in a crazy world then get along to support The Daphne Massacre. Support for independent artists needs to be maintained so they can continue to grow and realise their potential. IO Performance always does this, and it’s fantastic to see new people getting opportunities they mightn’t elsewhere, and the more they do, the more they learn. The Daphne Massacre runs till Sunday.
Review By Matt Taylor