The quote, “resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die,” has been attributed to different sources, including Nelson Mandela. In Bad Day Insurance, two elderly women spend their days in each other’s company, secluded from the world except for people on telephones who ask for insurance payouts due to having a bad day for all kinds of reasons. Esther and Mavis have to listen to these first world complaints every waking moment, and we soon get the impression that their state of torture would have been for a lot more than a few years. They are watched over by an invisible non-human entity named Boob, who exercises absolute control over these women, although we wonder if, like many of our gods, its existence is entirely in their minds. Esther and Mavis are grey haired and grey skinned, having waited an inordinately long time in their “call centre” (they sleep and work there) for an inscrutable something, or perhaps simply for their days at Bad Day Insurance to come to an end. They are trapped, and we wonder why. We wonder if they have imprisoned themselves and are punishing each other for something that had happened. We never hear the other end of the phone lines, and they do not ring on their own accord. The women verbalise a “ring ring” if a call arrives to taunt the other.
Lisa Chappell’s script is humorous, but its more striking feature is its strange darkness. The mystery and intrigue that Chappell creates is riveting, and her brand of empathetic absurdity brings out an unexpected compassion in the viewing experience. There are many loose ends to the piece, but meaningful details are peppered throughout so that our imagination is kept busy. We are entertained by a lot of silliness, but at the same time, we are completely engrossed on a cerebral level, seduced by all its somber resonances that point to something deeper that wants to be unearthed.
Performances by Chappell and Sarah Hynter are flawless. The actors are energetic, mischievous and magnetic, with a consummate professionalism that easily convinces us that all bases are covered. We are taken on a ride that involves laughter, surprise, curiosity, terror and poignancy. Under the directorship of Drew Fairley who provides a sensitive, nuanced third eye, the production they have created is a prime example of how showbusiness and art can collude to communicate something enjoyable, disarming and very clever. Talent of this calibre is a rare and beautiful thing, and to see Chappell and Hynter invent something that moves us on so many levels, is awe-inspiring.
Freedom is prized by everyone. It is not available to all, but in places like Australia, it is certainly within reach. Understanding how to attain that emancipation depends largely on an understanding of one’s own circumstances. Bad Day Insurance shows us that we almost never see the completeness of our lives. There are always annoyances, disappointments and pains that hold our attention, and we are always waiting for something to facilitate a release. Esther and Mavis have suffered an eternity. Prisoners of fear, despair and defeat, they have formed a hellish life, unaware of their power for creating better days for themselves. They fail to see that the locks enslaving them require keys that only they can manufacture. This is a show about our freedom, and it challenges us to seize it.