Caresses ~ theatre notes

Saturday, August 07, 2004


Caresses, by Sergi Belbel. Directed by Scott Gooding, with Simon Kearney, Danica Balara, Merrin Canning, Dawn Klingberg, Barry Friedlander, Tim Kelly, Kirk Westwood, Chloe Armstrong, Gareth Ellis and Penelope Bartlau. Vicious Fish Theatre, at Theatreworks. Until August 22.

Caresses marks my first acquaintance with the work of the Catalan playwright Sergi Belbel, for which I dips me lid to Vicious Fish. I am certainly richer for the introduction. This is tough, muscular writing, at once lyrical and obscene, humane and cruel, hilarious and tragic. Caresses represents the first part of an on-going commitment by Vicious Fish Theatre to Belbel's works, and I am looking forward to the next three productions of the Belbel Project with lively interest.

Sergi Belbel is part of a generation of playwrights which emerged in the 1990s. The international success of Catalan companies such as Els Comediants and others created a field where new writing could flourish, and this led to the development of a new generation of Spanish theatre writers, including Sanches Sinisterra, Angel Guimera, Benet i Jornet and Rodolf Sirera. Belbel is one of the most popular of these playwrights - Caresses has been performed all around the world and it was also adapted into a film by the Barcelona director Ventura Pons by 1998.

Its structure is taken from Arthur Schnitzler's 1896 play La Ronde, which scandalised fin de siecle audiences by tracking a series of sexual encounters through ten dialogues, in which one character from each scene moves into the next. It completes the circle of the title by coming back to the beginning, with the final scene including a character from the opening dialogue. It is an elegantly satisfying form, a dramatic equivalent of terza rima, which democratically gives each character two scenes each. It also has the virtue, like all interesting aesthetic decisions, of being a metaphor in itself.

Belbel's play has one more scene than Schnitzler's, and what binds the action here is not just sexual desire, but a complex dynamic of emotional dysfunction that often erupts into a blackly funny comedy of human absurdity. About five minutes into the play, I realised that the title of the piece is ironic. It opens with a dialogue which is apparently a conventional exposition of domestic violence, but this quickly mutates into a black satire on heterosexual domesticity. In the next scene, the woman from the first encounter is visiting her mother, who reads her an extravagantly poetic peroration on the night before the dialogue segues into a bitter conversation about their relationship, and the mother's decision to move into a home for the elderly. The following dialogue is set in the old people's home, and is between the mother and an old woman who was formerly her lover; but the old woman no longer remembers her. And so it swings from scene to scene, the disconnections as disconcerting as the connections.

Every scene enacts some moment of emotional extremity in which the characters are confronted by their inability to articulate their desires and react instead with violence and cruelty, the lees of love. Each dialogue is an attempt at love: between lovers, parents and children, siblings, or even the vagrant and fleeting love that is possible between strangers. But by the end of the play, I no longer thought the title ironic: the blows the characters inflict on each other are caresses, the stricken means by which they express their love, rather than love's lack. And the poignant final scene is tranformative and hopeful in a way which belies the apparent darkness of the play's vision.

This suggests a work of considerable complexity that operates at a number of emotional and metaphorical registers. Director Scott Gooding brings it to the stage with creditable style, although his cast doesn't always meet the mutiple resonances of the text, sometimes overstraining for effect, at others perhaps a little mono-dimensional. To fully explore the subtleties of this dialogue would require a longer rehearsal period than most Australian companies are funded for. Even so, there was no point where the energy flagged or I found my attention wandering: the inventiveness of the situations and the writing's theatricality are compelling, and there are standout performances by Barry Friedlander, Dawn Klingberg and Chloe Armstrong.

Kathryn Sproul's design fills the Theatreworks space with secondhand furniture: mattresses are stacked up against the walls, and the stage is full of old beds and bedsteads, tables, chairs, sideboards, wardrobes and battered suitcases. On walking into the theatre, it was impossible not to flash back to the earliest productions of the Keene/Taylor Theatre Project, mounted in 1997 at the Brotherhood of St Laurence's Fitzroy warehouse. The furniture donated there for those in need had a brief life as sets for a series of short plays by Daniel Keene, which were themselves concerned with the marginalised and emotionally dispossessed.

The KTTP connection is reinforced by Alison Halit's choreography. In the same way that Ariette Taylor used extras in many KTTP shows, Halit employs the actors not immediately involved in scenes to inhabit the space and amplify the action, creating the movement of a city around these isolated dialogues. To drive the connection further, Belbel's work is very reminiscent of Keene's. From this play at least, it seems that Belbel is stylistically less spare than Keene, more given to sonorities of repetition; but they share an ability to generate cruel humour while retaining a compassionate vision, and an unsentimental preoccupation with an urban geography of despair and alienation. Their connections betray a common lineage of European theatrical writing, of which Schnitzler is only the most obvious.

Gooding uses an English translation by John London, and I was slightly puzzled why he didn't change the specifically English references to more local ones; it would have been the work of a moment to convert pounds and pence to dollars and cents, and no middle class Australian woman refers to "Mummy" and "Daddy". It's a small quibble, but the poetic tightness of the writing does focus detail, and these slight hiccups in the lexicon seemed unncecessary.

Melbourne audiences can see Belbel's work thanks to Theatreworks' new policy of supporting innovative independent companies. So far, so very good: last month it hosted The Old Van's extraordinary production of Macbeth, and this play is a worthy successor. It reinforces my growing conviction that Melbourne's independent theatre scene is where it's all happening.


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