The Full Catastrophe, Sydney Writers Festival
WORDS BY BEN JOHNSTON
Thursday night’s rendition of ‘The Full Catastrophe’ at the Sydney Writer’s Festival marked the latest in a series of show’s perfect for anyone looking to satisfy a sense of schadenfreude. Presented by Giant Dwarf, for those unfamiliar with the concept, the Full Catastrophe is a series of live shows detailing stories from different speakers, recounting a time in their lives where thing’s ‘got so bad it was funny’. Fitted with a cult-like following, this instalment of the internationally regarded show, boasted speakers including ex-politician Sam Dastyari, English author Emma Glass, Swiss writer and Journalist Johann Hari and American lawyer turned writer Zack McDermott.
After a week of perilously hard assessments and disappointing mid-sem marks, I was very much looking forward to the opportunity to bask in other people’s misfortune. Sam Dastyari was the first to be introduced by co-hosts Sarah MacDonald and Rebecca Huntley, and although I was initially sceptical about Dastyari’s appointment alongside the other authors, the cringe worthy impromptu ‘banter’ between the hosts as they bickered over ‘who would introduce who’ left me begging for someone, anyone, to take the stage.
Sam stepped up and within a minute he managed to bring up his fall from grace in Australian politics, tell the audience that politicians don’t actually give a fuck about what the public thinks of them and cite failure as the ‘last taboo’ left for society to tackle after homosexuality, gender inequality and race. Dastyari’s moment where ‘thing’s got so bad they were funny’ turned out to be (you guessed it) just a few months ago where a scandal involving undisclosed correspondence with China left his political career in tatters. At the punchline of his story, he disclosed that his communist, Iranian parents told him at least he was able to walk away from politics with his life, which is more than you can say for anyone back home.
Emma Glass was probably the most likable of the four speakers, especially if charming English comedy and self-depreciating humour is your thing. Her tale about her lingering insecurities as a nurse and how she once had to save a distressed movie at a cinema in Leicester Square was both funnier and far less uncomfortable than Dastyari’s story.
Her performance lacked a a level of energy and enthusiasm, perhaps due to the fact she’d only arrived from London that morning. Johann Hari who followed was my favourite of the evening, with a far more relatable style of humour. Describing the time he nearly died from pesticide poisoning after eating an apple whilst interviewing survivors of the Vietnamese war was both interesting and engaging, and successfully segwayed into his battle with depression, where he spoke didactically about his experience helping him perpetually with his fight against mental illness. The jist of this lesson was that if you’re depressed that’s okay, and that you should listen to that depression because it’s telling you your needs aren’t being met.
Finally, Zach McDermott sentimentally spoke about a time he went two full days thinking he was in a Truman-esq fake world, where he was the central figure and everyone around him were actors. During these time he attempted to steal a bike from a homeless person, took his clothes off on a public train and was ultimately permitted to a psychiatric ward, after which his mum ‘The Bird’, had to fly interstate to bail him out. In terms of substance, this was the most interesting story, however his delivery lacked personality, as if he was emotionally detached from what he was saying.
As a whole, it’s hard to formulate an introspection on a show that’s fractured so distinctly. I certainly wouldn’t say I was impressed, though saying I was disappointed is a little harsh. I wouldn’t dissuade anyone thinking of going, though unfortunately I don’t think I could bring myself to recommend it either.