Sweet Staccato Rising ~ theatre notes

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Sweet Staccato Rising

Sweet Staccato Rising by Robert Reid. Directed by Lauren Taylor, with Hamish Michael and Lauren Urquhart. Theatre of Decay at The Store Room, until August 22.

Talking about my g-g-generation: nothing is calculated to make me feel more like J. Alfred Prufrock than some bouncy young artist insisting on his or her youth. It is unarguable that 40 is older than 20, and I guess quoting Eliot says it all: how last century can a creaking old ague-ridden carcass get?

But I can't help it, the ague or the age. So here one stands, rolling up the bottoms of one's trousers, checking out the crows' feet around one's eyes and that lascivious softening of the flesh that occurs around one's middle, if one pays too little attention to lifestyle clubs and botox. It is indisputable that I am over 38 (eew, old! they say with disgust of 38 in Sweet Staccato Rising) and wear my age gracelessly, if only to point out that disaffected youth didn't spring new-minted from the ground in 1984. And if Robert Reid's play Sweet Staccato Rising makes me feel my age - so what? Was it worth the discomfort? Or - perhaps more pertinently - was it in fact as discomforting as it sought to be?

Sweet Staccato Rising covers familiar territory. It tracks the alienated young lovers Gunner (Hamish Michael) and Slitfish (Lauren Urquhart) as they implode in mutual self-destruction. It's that old romance of sex and death, Bonnie and Clyde or Sid and Nancy for a new generation. I've never really bought into the generational concept, which seems to me a device invented by market researchers, but, for the record, Reid claims to speak for those born in the mid-80s "between two Gulf Wars", articulating a familiar nihilism which is nevertheless aggressively particular to contemporary Melbourne.

The play's parochial focus gave me pause, for a number of reasons. One danger is that its brand of suburban angst runs the risk of seeming little more than self-indulgent, a cry of rebellion which turns out to be no more than "nobody loves me". (But is there anything more, after all, to the young Brando's iconic sneer?) And admittedly, the endless eastern suburbs of Melbourne, especially when seen from a train window, are bleakness itself: the heartland that spawns Neighbours and Kath & Kim is mile after mile of identical suburbia, sterile and heart-shrinking, the only sign of vitality the graffiti which blazes garishly along kilometres of fencing. It's not surprising that, in this landscape, youth suicide statistics are among the highest in the world.

Still, it was the stifling petit bourgeois respectability of Charleville which engendered the incandescent talent of Arthur Rimbaud, probably the first and still arguably the greatest of adolescent rebel angels. It is poverties of spirit that are germane here, not material poverty, despite the statistics about youth poverty flashed, a la Brecht, onto the theatre wall. Gunner and Slitfish are from the disenfranchised white middle class, not the underclass who inhabit towerblocks and caravan parks; they are not migrant workers or asylum seekers or disenfranchised indigenous people or, to begin with, homeless. Gunner might burn down his house, but he has a house to burn down in the first place: and it's a house with a lawn. Slitfish can afford a ticket to New Zealand, even if she is raped there. There are claims made for disenfranchisement which sit rather nervously over what is revealed in the play; I would have felt less bothered if there had been no claims, if I had been permitted simply to watch the story of these two abusive and abused young people. But this is theatre which seldom escapes a didactic edge.

Reid has written a series of dialogues which outline the limited arena of Gunner's and Slitfish's lives. They are given a high-octane delivery by Hamish Michael and Lauren Urquhart in two very interesting performances. Both are in clownish white-face make-up and lit only by white light in a black box theatre, and their physicality is jerky and artificial, as if they are marionettes or anarchic dolls. It's a risky strategy: these alienations only work sometimes, most effectively in the final scene, when the artifice of the direction and performance pays off in a true heightening of feeling. There is little attention to nuance in Lauren Taylor's direction, and although I admired the full-on, relentless assault of the energies of the performers and the play, the shock of dialogue delivered in a monotonal shout is one of diminishing returns. The effect is more often numbing than awakening.

The major problems with the production seemed to me to be in the writing itself. Sweet Staccato Rising aims for a tragic arc which drives towards a cathartic climax, but Reid has an uncertain grasp of the dramatic mechanics which make this possible, and the energies of the play are consequently largely dissipated in meandering dialogues. Despite a surface appearance of action, very little in fact happens until the final scene, where at last a real conflict occurs between the characters and the dialogue becomes forceful and dynamic and, dare I say it, moving.

The challenge in work like this is to create a mimesis of pointless and meandering lives without making the work itself meandering and pointless: it's a hard ask, and Reid only partially succeeds. I admire the ambition, which is the first ingredient of achievement, but I suspect this work is not ambitious enough. If it were, it might reach past its own naivetie, a nagging sense of narcissism which ultimately compromises its politics.

The Store Room

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