Terrorism ~ theatre notes

Sunday, August 29, 2004


Terrorism by the Presnyakov Brothers. Directed by Victor Bizzotto, designed by Douglas Iain-Smith, with Adam May, Romy Lor, Sophie Kelly, Paul Denny, Julie Eckersley, Paul Reichenstein, Lyndal Hall and Luke Elliot. Theatre@risk, Fortyfive Downstairs until September 12.

Writing plays is a delicately negotiated compromise between the subtleties of literary ambition and the pragmatic limitations of the stage. On the evidence of Terrorism, the Presnyakov Brothers negotiate with style. It has a brutal elegance, the kind of brilliantly nuanced crudity which heralds notable theatre.

The play opens with a bomb scare at an airport that sparks a banal discussion between three passengers on the nature of terrorism. Terrorism, we are told, gains its power by its reasonlessness: anyone might be its target, and being an innocent civilian is no protection. Its only aim is fear, by which we are manipulated and controlled...

This was one of a few occasions where I sniffed didacticism, feeling that I was being patronised by the writers. But on reflection, I suspect that this is a problem with the production rather than the text. The dialogue reflects the media-driven discourse around the word "terrorism" that the play is seeking to subvert, and I think is meant to function ironically, being the kind of anxious gossip that attempts to deflect or control fear. In this production, perhaps by default, it comes across as a frame through which the audience is directed to interpret the play. But as it unfolds, it becomes clear that Terrorism is by no means straightforward: by the end, it is not even clear if any of the events have actually happened, or if they have merely occurred inside the traumatised mind of one of the characters.

The play consists of six connected but autonomous scenes, through which the panic instilled by the bomb scare ripples and amplifies into something truly deadly. There are the adulterous lovers whose sexual games cross the line from play to real danger; the two grandmothers discussing murder; the boss who bullies his underlings to suicide; the brutal hazing of a soldier. In each of these scenes the Presnyakov Brothers peel back the veneer of normal social behaviours to reveal their potential murderousness. These scenes are where the real power of the play exists and, at their core, they are shockingly cruel. It is not so easy to sort out victim from criminal, the innocent from the guilty: everybody is implicated and no one, not even a child, is blameless. Terrorism is presented as a tyranny of fear which corrupts and brutalises even the most minute and everyday aspects of our lives.

The play is specifically Russian in many ways: its black absurdity, for instance, draws from a literary tradition as old as Gogol. The Presnyakov Brothers know that comedy is inherently cruel and voyeuristic, that the man slipping on a banana skin isn't as far from souvenir atrocity photos as we would like to think, and they fully exploit this knowledge in their writing. But the play's clear-eyed dissections of brutality strike uncomfortable resonances, and touch some of our deepest contemporary fears.

It ought to be both frightening and hilarious, but theatre@risk gives it a rather prophylactic production. Apart from the problems of a largely young and under-rehearsed cast, Victor Bizzotto's direction has a fussy, drama-school feel about it, with over-choreographed scene changes which diffuse the energy of the writing. There is also a strange sense of kitsch, an edge of camp: I suspect this is an attempt to grapple with the comedic aspects of the writing which substitutes for dealing with its confrontational brutality. As a result, performances waver in and out of focus, giving occasional glimpses of what the play might be; only Julie Eckersley consistently achieves the unsentimental accuracy which can release the text's comedy and pathos.

These problems are amplified by Douglas Iain Smith's set, which consists of a number of pastel-coloured canvases neatly hung around the white gallery space. The setting muffles rather than illuminates the play, containing its confrontations within a context of consumable cultural display. The seating is arranged lengthwise, perhaps the least felicitious arrangement for this space since, unless you are in the front row, there are almost no good sightlines. It also means that getting actors on and off stage includes a long walk, which slows down further the orchestration of the action.

The first thing I noticed when I got into the theatre was that the program was printed on high quality glossy paper. Not, to quote Seinfeld, that there's anything wrong with that; if the gloss had heralded a deeper lustre, this might not have lodged in my mind. A small but telling detail was the absence of any credit for the English translator, whom I assume is Sasha Dugdale, the translator for last year's production at the Royal Court in London. Lack of resources is a constant dilemma for independent companies, and it's understandable that they might aspire to a mainstream PR slickness. But given that the production of this very interesting play was so drastically undercooked, I wondered if this company's resources might not better be directed to the substance of its art.

Fortyfive Downstairs

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

the play seems really interesting. Do you know where i can find a script for the play (somewhere online). I am a student at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), Pakistan. I would like to do this play for this year's annual drama performance. I cant find the original script and if you can help me find it i would be really greatful.

thank you.