Review: A Family Outing – 20 Years On, Perth Festival

Twenty years after performing alongside her parents, Ursula Martinez revisits the conceit after her father's death and as her mother battles dementia.
Review: A Family Outing – 20 Years On, Perth Festival

Photo credit: Hugo Glendinning

If we are to learn from the lesson of revival tours by aging rock stars then clearly, the revisiting of past glories, if nothing else, are a massive gamble. To hang something too heavily on nostalgia is dangerous, but to then add a new layer of dementia is just plain brave.

Such concerns seem not to have daunted UK performance artist Ursula Martinez, the 2019 Artist-in-residence at Perth Festival, who here revisits her 1998 production, A Family Outing, originally performed alongside her parents, in a new iteration: A Family Outing – 20 Years On.

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Martinez opens with an address to the audience. ‘Dad has died and mum can’t remember things.’ While mirroring its original, it is a very different play with a very different tone.

In 1998, Martinez shared a couch – literally – with her mum and dad, presenting a Freudian observation of their familial relationship. It was her maiden production, and premiered at the Edinburgh Festival before touring internationally.

Now Martinez is 50 and her mother Mila is 83, and has been on the journey of early stage dementia for the past three years.

It was a poster of the Edinburgh Festival hanging in Martinez’s office that inspired her to revisit the production. It’s hardly a new idea, the most celebrated example being the British documentary Seven Up, with many others following the successful format.

A VHS recording of the original performance is mirrored onstage. This echo feels a little like a visual glitch, and yet acts as a powerful tool for Mila to keep pace – a TV monitor on stage acting as cue.

At one point she asks: ‘Where am I now? I want to be myself there,' pointing to her younger self on the monitor.

This device is particularly helpful mid-way through the production when Mila is coaxed into dancing to the song, 'I Will Survive'.

Photo credit: Hugo Glendinning

Martinez’s cabaret background comes through strongly in her gesture and phrasing; she has an ability to laugh at herself and the crazy proposition of presenting a piece of theatre with someone suffering from dementia.

The slippage between narrator and performer is necessary, but at times felt awkward. At one juncture she positions her month in a “sound booth” – headphones on and listening to music – while she delivers a moving monologue.

Martinez reassures the audience: ‘She is OK, and I am too,’ before moving on to question how much is responsibility and how much is sacrifice. When do you become resentful caring for an aged parent, while also battling the guilty feeling that you are not doing enough? It is one of the most pressing emotions of the 21st century as we face an ageing population.

Coupled with a moment in the play when Martinez goes off stage to seek some papers – power of attorney papers to be signed – Mila sits with a welling fear alone on the couch, focused on time. This is the one moment where emotions start to be pushed to an invisible edge, where reality, rawness and reason collide.

That authenticity – if you want to call it that – is pushed into a curious corner with the performance’s end. Mila insists on “sticking to the script”. We are ushered through a staged conversation that suspends belief – how much was real? – and embodies the reality of the confusion that surrounds this modern disease.

However, there feels like there is no arrival point; no poignant walk-away other than that this production was a brave but ultimately the attempt felt thin.

While the marketing promised humour and cross-generational nudity – both through its hero image and program warning – no nudity avails in this production, and the balance of humour to carry this production feels strained. 

The only naked exposure is that of human frailty. This work feels rushed to me, despite its 20 year gestation.

3.5 stars: ★★★☆

A Family Outing – 20 Years On
Created by Ursula Martinez
Director: Mark Whitelaw
Lighting: Chris Copeland
A Perth Festival Co-commission with SICK Festival and Barbican Centre London, where it will be performed March 2019

State Theatre Centre of WA, Studio Underground
7-12 February 2019

Perth Festival 2019
8 February - 3 March
www.perthfestival.com.au

About the author

Gina Fairley is ArtsHub's National Visual Arts Editor. For a decade she worked as a freelance writer and curator across Southeast Asia and was previously the Regional Contributing Editor for Hong Kong based magazines Asian Art News and World Sculpture News. Prior to writing she worked as an arts manager in America and Australia for 14 years, including the regional gallery, biennale and commercial sectors. She is based in Mittagong, regional NSW.

Twitter: @ginafairley
Instagram: fairleygina