This July, Malthouse Theatre presents Ash Flanders’ new work, This Is Living, a semi-autobiographical play that turns The Malthouse into a Hepburn Springs getaway. The work is described as the saltiest, sweetest, and most honest look at love and friendship you’ll see. Flanders is notorious for putting on productions that are a little more unconventional, campy and not set in the real world but this work rocks that boat completely.
For actor Wil King, the thing that was most attractive about the project was the tone. “Ash is such a brilliant writer. He’s exhaustingly witty and when you pair that with how personal and important this story is to him… that’s a very sexy combo to me as an actor,” says King. “Laughs and tears in equal measure. Often at the same time. And it’s all very keenly observed, so the laughs never feel cheap. They’re pretty expensive laughs, I’d say. It’s just so relatable as well, I think people are going to see their own relationships in this play: whether you’ve cared for a sick loved one, you’ve got a friend who you’re not sure if you love or hate, or you’re hanging out with a well dressed girl boss TV presenter — there’s something for everyone. It all feels very true and familiar and hilarious.’
The work is based on Flanders and his partner’s Dan real life experiences – they discovered Dan had a terminal illness during lockdowns in Melbourne, broke up during it, then got back together with a renewed energy. So, King explains, the story follows Will and Hugh who have just gotten back together after splitting up for 6 weeks. Hugh has acute myeloid leukaemia and the steroid treatments he’s been on have been pretty intense, causing some serious changes in behaviour/mood. And Will has copped the brunt of a lot of that. He’s done his best to be the level-headed one who takes the high road when Hugh jumps down his throat… but he’s only human. And as Hugh has gotten sicker, Will has copped it more and more and he’s struggling to cope.
Says King, “I’m often cringing for Will as we rehearse, thinking “let it go! He doesn’t mean it! He’s just sick!” But Will really is just copping it constantly… and honestly, he probably handles himself better than I would. I don’t do well with raised voices! He’s also a bit on the outside with this group of friends. They’ve rented a gorgeous Hepburn Springs holiday home together for New Years Eve… but they all knew Hugh first, they haven’t seen him at his worst, and Will reckons if it came down to it, no one would take his side. So Will does a lot of walking on eggshells! Tensions are high and that’s what makes the comedy pop.”
King believes the question the play is really asking is: how do you care for someone who’s sick whilst making sure that you look after yourself in the process? Is that even possible? “I think audiences will walk away dissecting the relationships… asking questions like: is Hugh too hard on Will? Or should Will suck it up given that Hugh is literally dying? Should Will and Hugh even be together?”
For King, the show is also about chosen family. It shows how important it is to have our friends around us in troubling times; to remind us who we are, help us put on a brave face, and hold us as we fall apart.
Sounding more than a little like ‘being in the room where it happened,’ King says the audience gets to be a real fly on the wall. “Our director Matt Lutton and our set designer Matilda Woodroofe have completely reconfigured the Merlyn theatre to create a kind of intimacy we aren’t used to seeing on commercial stages; making it feel like the audience are in the house with the characters (at their own peril!). Ash takes this even further by incorporating moments where multiple conversations are occurring at the same time, crossing and interweaving in hilarious ways and giving each audience member a different experience… as they decide where they want to put their attention. There are times when a hilarious interaction will be taking place in, say, the living room — while we see another character completely falling apart in the bedroom. At the same time! The audience is really taken on the journey with these characters, in real time. It’s chaos! Which is why I think it’s so fun.”
This is King’s first time working with Flanders and the rest of the team, having met Flanders for the first time through the audition process — but, says King, the two have a mutual friend, Annie Maver, who assistant directed a brilliant show King did for the ABC/Netflix a couple of years back called Why Are You Like This.
“Annie and Ash are really close and she would often tell me how much I reminded her of him, ” says King, “which was a huge compliment because he’s brilliant. Ash was actually the first openly queer performer I ever saw in a queer role in a MainStage production. It’s not something that happens very often so I remember it really clearly. It made me think “huh, maybe I could do that too?” Anyway apparently Annie also told Ash that we were very alike and that we should play siblings and I feel like that may have led to Malthouse reaching out to talk about This Is Living. Thanks Annie!”
King says the best part of the process so far has been how funny everyone is. “There’s a lot of laughs in the rehearsal room. One section of the play in particular comes to mind: without giving too much away, there’s a scene where the absolute weapon that is Belinda Mcclory storms in after a date from hell… basically she’s livid and she goes right off and it gets me every time. There’s something so funny about rage to me… I think that’s why I’m obsessed with shows like White Lotus and Beef. It feels true to our world. Apparently you find things funniest when they reflect a truth in yourself… so maybe I’m really angry? I wouldn’t have thought so but you know what, that’s actually none of your fucking business! Next question!”
As an actor King is definitely most attracted to stories with a darkness to them. “People are just so compelling when they’re pushed right to the edge. Really getting inside someone’s psyche and understanding why they behave the way they do and trying to inhabit their emotional world is what I find most interesting. My favourite TV series is Sharp Objects, directed by the late Jean-Marc Vallée… I recommend it constantly and people often come back to me saying they couldn’t watch it, it was too dark! That gives you an idea of what I love. But I still really enjoy working on lighter stories — because the murky stuff is always in there… you just have to look! This is Living is far from dark tonally, but the struggle that Will is facing is very appealing to me. The shame of wanting to stand up to Hugh when Hugh is so sick… it’s icky and difficult and I love that about it. It’s so real! Which makes it even more hilarious.”
One of their favourite roles to date walks a similar line or humour and pathos; a play called Strangers in Between by the incredible Tommy Murphy. “I played a pretty damaged teenage runaway who had escaped family violence in country NSW and was hiding out in an early 2000s Kings Cross. It’s a truly stunning play, my character Shane is forced confront his family trauma and learns to embrace queer family as he comes of age, in a very funny and heart wrenching way. It was a real gift to dive into such a complex, deeply felt queer character every night… there aren’t that many around! It was my first job and it really taught me how to act.”
Special mention must go to the time King got to play a young Charles Manson… “god he was fucked up but it was so liberating to play someone so unshackled from the expectations of how a person should and shouldn’t behave. Every night was quite different because we wanted him to be super unpredictable — that really was a treat.”
King shares that they actually just found out that a ‘gorgeous’ show they worked on called, In Our Blood, has been nominated for a Logie! It depicts Australia’s world leading Health Policy response to HIV/Aids in the 80s, based on a true story. And a plug – You can still catch it on iView, “I was so lucky to work with such an incredible group of people on that show. An all queer cast, we were all holed up in a hotel in Brisbane together for 6 weeks… it was heaven and they are family to me now. You’ll also catch my face in ABC/CBS’s new gold rush comedy Gold Diggers, premiering July 5th! Other than that, I’m off to NYC for a few months when we close This is Living to visit my partner Patrick Livesey who is currently studying over there thanks to the Marten Bequest. I’m so ready to get inspired, take class with the best of the best and put time into some development/writing projects that have been on the back burner the last few months.”
This is Living promises something for everyone because, try as you might to float on the surface, life has a funny way of bubbling up—and over.
Says King, “If you’re looking for a hilarious romp, this show is for you. And if you’re looking for something that goes a little deeper, even better. The combination of Ash’s unmatched wit and the undeniably personal connection he has to the material makes for something really unique and special in This is Living. And staged in such a creative and exciting way, with a killer cast — you won’t see anything like it popping up again any time soon!”
July 7 – 30
Rehearsal Image:Phoebe Powell