Sydney Theatre Company
Runs until January 31.
Steven Soderbergh’s Tot Mom (pronounced Taht Mawm, American style) is a searing indictment of America’s “media-as-entertainment” culture, particularly their insatiable apetite for true crime, as manifested in media coverage of the OJ Simpson trial, and the popularity of shows like Judge Judy and the Nancy Grace show.
Soderbergh as attacked this facet of American culture through the prism of one particularly sordid case, as analysed on CNN’s Nancy Grace – the case of 23-year-old single mother Casey Anthony, who has been indicted on suspicion of murdering her 3-year-old infant Caylee in 2008.
The case transfixed America – thanks in no small part to Grace’s show, which followed the case in minute detail, including interviewing those involved in the case, broadcasting the original 911 calls by Casey’s mother to the police, and reporting each piece of evidence as it came to light. And all this before the case has even gone to trial – which is scheduled for June this year.
Tot Mom fits into the “Verbatim” genre, theatre which is created from actual transcripts, recorded interviews, phone calls, emails etc, relating to the event in question. In this case, Soderbergh has collated interviews and conversations from the Grace show, which form the basis of the work. 911 calls, and phone calls that Casey Anthony made to her brother from jail, are played back in their raw form; footage from the Grace show, on the other hand, is acted out by the cast, which includes Wayne Blair, Darren Gilshenan, Zoe Carides and Essie Davis, playing blonde bombshell Nancy Grace.
If Davis’ performance seems overblown at times – perhaps even erring on the side of caricature – it’s worth looking up footage of Grace on YouTube, for evidence of just how closely Davis has studied her part. She even has Grace’s odd inflection of “Caylee”, which sounds slightly mangled, down pat.
Verbatim theatre has allowed Soderbergh to re-arrange “reality” – to edit and re-order it in the same way that Grace does, in fact; it also draws the audience’s attention to the fact that this is entertainment. Grace’s show presents the story as a who-dunnit –and the fact that it relates to real people makes it even more thrilling.
On a deeper level, Soderbergh puts you, the audience, in the uncomfortable position of culpability: here you are being damn-well entertained by the story of a 3-year-old child who has been brutally murdered. No-one, in this scenario, is spotless – and you find yourself interrogating your own reasons for being in the theatre tonight. I also found myself interrogating Soderbergh’s reasons for choosing this particular case – if all he wanted to do (as he claims) was look at how the media relates to crime, then he could have picked any number of less sordid cases. But would they have the same shock appeal?