Benjamin Law’s body of work makes you feel very good and very bad. Good, because he’s smart and funny and explores life and family with an eye-rolling tenderness that makes you want to call your Mum. Bad, because he probably wrote an article, a script, or a novel outline before you turned off your alarm this morning.
Across his expansive career, Law has written several books (one which was adapted into the SBS series The Family Law), contributed to more than 50 publications, penned a Quarterly Essay on Safe Schools, worked on a pile of great TV shows, and wrote and presented the two-part ABC documentary Waltzing the Dragon, which examined the entwined history and culture of Australia and China. He also co-hosts Stop Everything!, Radio National’s weekly pop-culture program.
Somewhere within all that activity, he also wrote a play called Torch the Place. It was developed as part of Melbourne Theatre Company’s NEXT STAGE Writers’ Program, which commissions and presents new Australian works for theatre. It’s one of the highlights of MTC’s 2020 season, a season that will poke at many societal nerves.
Hannah Moscovitch’s Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes tackles gender politics and sexual dynamics against the backdrop of a university. Sunshine Super Girl follows Evonne Goolagong’s rise to tennis stardom, despite the systemic racism that tried to shut her out. SLAP. BANG. KISS. is a story about four teenagers embroiled in protest: one a gun control activist in the wake of a school shooting, another the subject of a viral video where she slaps the face of an occupying soldier and two teenage boys trying to break the world record for longest ever kiss.
Torch the Place is about three siblings returning to their family home, determined to confront their mother’s compulsive hoarding tendencies and stage a forced clean-out. Law describes it as a “classic adult-children homecoming” that, like much of his previous writing, uses family as a lens to explore complex and interconnected themes speaking to the most personal parts of Australian life. It stars Fiona Choi (of The Family Law), Michelle Lim Davidson and Diana Lin.
Law’s been fascinated by compulsive hoarding for a while now. “The thing is with hoarding, there are a lot of assumptions that come from people who either don’t have the condition or have never encountered someone who has,” he says.
Much of the media’s representation of hoarders (and there is a lot, from Oprah specials to a reality TV series) try and find a single motivator for the behaviour. “They think it must be an off-shoot of obsessive compulsive disorder, [or] people must hoard because they come from a life of deprivation,” says Law. “But that’s not true.”
During his research – when he time spent speaking with people impacted by hoarding – Law began to understand that the behaviour is a complicated response to trauma, identity, and personal history. “[People who hoard] have these magnificent minds that imbue story and memory and narrative into the most mundane objects that the rest of us think of as trash,” he says. “[Hoarding] braids together big Australian conversations: real estate (what hoarding does to real estate), mental health and disaster capitalism.” Pausing for a moment, he adds, “So obviously I would need to write a comedy about it.”
That balance of comedy and drama was one of the elements that drew MTC Artistic Director Brett Sheehy to Law’s work. “I think it’s fair to say Ben’s dramatic writing can be defined by an effortless and razor-sharp wit that’s underpinned with real honesty and reality,” he says. “The experiences he writes about are fundamentally human and relatable, and he’s equally capable of dealing with light-hearted comedy as he is with more serious subjects, which is the skill of a great writer.”
The complexity of the topic was also what led to Law’s decision to explore the story as a play. While his experience is in journalism and TV, theatre offered a greater sense of intimacy. “Once the doors are locked we can instill a sense of claustrophobia in everyone, just like a hoarding household can,” he says.
But the choice put him in the position of being a relative newcomer again. Luckily NEXT STAGE offered a uniquely nurturing space to find his feet: “Stage productions are often made off the smell of an oily rag. But because this has been robustly supported through donors and the theatre company itself, it’s felt fantastic actually,” says Law. “I can’t even begin to describe how grateful I am.”
The feeling is clearly mutual. “We embarked on the program with the intention of commissioning writers either with experience writing for theatre companies or writers of calibre from other disciplines to introduce new voices to the theatre landscape,” Sheehy says. “We were extremely keen to include Ben.”
That time and space ended up being vital when unpacking such a sensitive and often misrepresented experience. With it, Law was able to have “big conversations about the emotional, physical, and logistical difficulties, and financial impossibilities that sometimes come with living with severe mental illness”. It also allowed him to explore more nuanced parts of the story. While compulsive hoarding is brutal for everyone involved, he suggests “there’s another way of looking at it as well: these minds are kind of magnificent in their own way”.
Sheehy believes the audience will in turn also examine “their own family relationships and their relationships with those closest to them, and hopefully think insightfully, humanely and sympathetically about mental health conditions”.
All up, creating Torch the Place has been a huge process. Law was brought into the MTC universe in 2017 and the play will be performed in 2020. During those three years he’s been researching, interviewing, writing, and workshopping with actors and directors. But he downplays the task of absorbing the workload into his already packed creative life. “I guess I’m a little bit restless, there are so many things that I want to do and just don’t have time to,” he says. “Then another part of it is just that freelancer instinct where you want to be doing everything and you kind of have to, otherwise you’ll die.
“I’m glad I give the optics of being productive. I’m pleased to embrace that.”
Torch the Place is part of MTC’s 2020 Season. Broadsheet is a proud media partner of Melbourne Theatre Company.
This story originally appeared in print issue 28.