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Article

Review: Empathy Training, MICF 2022

Should our mistakes define us? The dogmatic dominion of ‘cancel culture’, perpetuated by its re-tweeting apostles, has spread from social media fodder to become ubiquitous in real-life relationships. In Brendan Black and Martin Chewell’s play Empathy Training, shown at the La Mama theatre as a part of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, this contemporary philosophy of ‘cancelling’ is pulled apart and prodded in comically genius and thought-provoking ways.

Content Warning: Sexual Harassment, Assualt, Misogyny.

 

Should our mistakes define us? The dogmatic dominion of ‘cancel culture’, perpetuated by its re-tweeting apostles, has spread from social media fodder to become ubiquitous in real-life relationships. In Brendan Black and Martin Chewell’s play Empathy Training, shown at the La Mama theatre as a part of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, this contemporary philosophy of ‘cancelling’ is pulled apart and prodded in comically genius and thought-provoking ways.

Black and Chewell construct complex and multifaceted characters who are hilarious, surprising and endearing. The 90-minute-long show is situated in a single location; Sarah’s office. Sarah (played by Devita van de Velde) is a psychologist who has built her career by teaching people empathy. Her four clients begrudgingly attend a group empathy training session, where both the drama and hilarity ensue.

Her first client, Winston, is (we are led to assume from his conservative political stance and constant Labor-bashing) a Liberal MP ordered to attend this session by the Prime Minister. Peter Hatherley has perfected his portrayal of Winston, awfully reminiscent of every white, conservative uncle who systematically ruins Christmas. Through Winston, Black and Chewell explore how one can detach themselves so far from their authentic self to make other people happy. They question how much you can truly judge someone for their actions when their whole being is a constructed facade to fulfil a criterion of expectations.

Her second client, Cynthia (played by Julie Arnold), is a CEO and founder of a fashion brand, ordered to attend the meeting by her board of directors. Cynthia’s crime of deciding to offshore her company’s manufacturing to factories with child labour and exploitative wages is doubled with allegations of bullying her co-workers. Cynthia crumbles beneath patriarchal pressures to persevere through every glass ceiling at whatever cost. Her only motivation is a capitalistic drive that leads her to make decisions she is ultimately ashamed of. Black and Chewell engage relevantly in the discourse surrounding ‘Girl Boss Feminism’. They successfully critique its perpetuation of the ideal that women must act like megalomaniac businessmen for equality to be achieved.

Sarah’s third client, Maddysyn (played by Emma Snow), is a fictionalised Belle Gibson with an added relevant layer of anti-vaccine sentiment. While Belle Gibson promoted a lifestyle that cured her cancer (that she never actually had), Maddysyn sells her health shakes, propheting their myriad of health benefits. She claims that her shakes will save you from COVID-19 – whilst also believing and propagating that COVID-19 is caused by 5G and vaccines are microchipped bio-killers. Yet, her fraudulent claims have led some of her faithful followers to death, as they were told that her shakes were better than chemotherapy. Maddysyn represents the danger of the digital age and misinformation, standing at the intersection of New Age spiritualism and anti-science sentiment.

Sarah’s fourth and final client is Tucker (played by Alex Thomson), an AFL star who consistently trumpets his goal-kicking talents. Tucker’s in the session because of sexual assault and harassment allegations. Furthermore, his online response to the allegations contained a slew of misogynistic terms regarding the victims, warranting his place in this empathy class. In a slightly out of left field moral, Tucker seems to represent the notion that cancel culture can ruin men’s lives who are accused of assault allegations, on the occasion that they are false.

Tucker’s narrative is troubling. Black and Chewell’s apparent equivocation of cancel culture to the #MeToo movement is problematic by placing the testimony of victims who come forward with their trauma on the same pedestal as internet trolls. Especially considering that Tucker is presented in the show as an affably endearing character, Black and Chewell seem to propel the idea that maybe we should be less harsh on men with allegations of gendered abuse. Whilst most of the play is hilariously light-hearted, the line of thought that Tucker engages with is outdated, endangers the legitimacy of victims’ testimonies, and needs review.

The conclusion of the show shifts the narrative from comedic to sombre. The final scene sobers the audience, questioning the existential nature of empathy. What is empathy? Can you really teach empathy? Sarah, the psychologist, represents these notions that push through Empathy Training, including: can anyone have authority and hold people accountable on empathy if we’re all just hypocrites?

 

 
Farrago's magazine cover - Edition Three 2021

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