Afterplay by Brian Friel, directed by Malcolm Robinson with Lewis Fiander and Lyndel Rowe, until July 11 at Fortyfivedownstairs, Flinders Lane.
Sometimes I think my passion for theatre - and I suppose I have to call it a passion - is purely a pleasure in watching actors. This isn't entirely true, theatre being the nexus of so many arts, but it's true enough. Perhaps it's partly that I've never had any ambition to act - I will never understand it from the inside. To watch a consummate actor at work evokes in me a kind of wonder, like Franz Kafka watching typists in awe at their ability to use the machine: there's something arcane and mysterious about it, a bewitchingly fragile courage, a generosity which is the exact reverse of narcissicism.
And actors don't come much more consummate than Lewis Fiander. When he's on stage, you can't stop watching him. He never drifts off into abstraction or vagueness, even if all he has to do is sit still and listen. The entire length of his lanky body is all living attention, and his nobly aged face seems to have been designed especially to express nuance and complexity. He might have been born to play Chekhov, that master of human finitude, whose characters orbit their frustrated passions through the suffocating trivialities of their lives, flickering through hope and despair and resignation like poignantly brilliant stars.
In Afterplay, Brian Friel's tribute to Chekhov, Fiander is almost doing that. Friel has taken up what has recently become a common conceit, to take the characters from a classic work and imagine them further than their authors did; so we have versions of Dickens by Peter Carey, or new takes on Jane Austen. I have sometimes wondered what prompts writers towards such exercises, since it wavers dangerously close to a kind of fetishisation; surely a more interesting tribute would be in a truly imaginative expansion of what another writer does, in taking an influence and running with it (as you might argue that Beckett did with Chekhov - these two playwrights seem to me to be profoundly related). But still, when it's done well it can have its virtues, and with a playwright like Friel you can be sure it will be well done.
Friel takes two characters from two of Chekhov's plays, Andrei, the brother in The Three Sisters, and Sonia from Uncle Vanya. Friel has enough skill as a writer to pull off a creditable ventriloquisation of the master. In Afterplay, Sonia (Lyndel Rowe) and Andrei (Lewis Fiander) meet in a shabby Moscow cafe some two decades after the events of the plays. They have fallen on hard times; Sonia is facing the progressive loss of her estate, and Andrei is now forced to busk in the streets, his "useless" culture earning him a living at last. Sonia's practical veneer gradually crumbles to reveal that she still cherishes a burning, hopeless love for Dr Astrov, a passion she will not abandon. Andrei sustains himself by a series of "little fictions": that his wife did not leave him, but died instead; that his children are successful and close to him; that he is a violinist in the orchestra for La Boheme, rather than busking in the Moscow streets with a mediocre balalaika player from Uzbekistan.
The faded remains of the middle class in revolutionary Russia, they can think of the future only with fear. And the biggest fear, for both of them, is loneliness. Like Chekhov, Friel gradually exposes how people create an insulation of dreams to defend themselves against the emptinesses in their lives, stripping away their illusions to reveal the touchingly irrational passions which animate their lives. The effect of all Chekhov's plays is to create an almost unbearable feeling of human mortality, a sense of inevitable darkness encroaching on tiny, exquisitely fragile pools of light. This endows the minutae of life with a piquant significance: the smallest gesture, no matter how futile, is transformed into an act of defiance. Friel goes a long way to achieving this sense, but he is not Chekhov; Afterplay has a more limited idea of passion, and while Friel can emulate Chekhov's skill in exposing human triviality and his sense of comic tragedy, he can't match the ultimate grandeur and pathos of Chekhov's vision.
However, it's enough for the actors to go on, and the performances make this production well worth the price of admission. As the pragmatic, stoic Sonia, Rowe is an excellent foil to Fiander's Andrei. Both these vastly experienced actors give detailed performances of great feeling, and capture with beautiful precision the shifting layers and comic contradictions of their characters. Fiander is unarguably brilliant, and Rowe never less than excellent. I think Rowe's performance suffered a little for me because an extraordinary portrayal by Melita Jurisic many years ago has indelibly coloured my image of Sonia; for all her skill and feeling, Rowe's more restrained performance couldn't dislodge Jurisic's throbbingly lyrical passion from my mind.
Malcolm Robertson's production is about as simple as a production can get: the design is a sketch of greys, browns and blacks against the white wall of the space, which immediately gives it a sense of shabby nostalgia, like an old sepia photograph. The set consists merely of three cafe tables and a cupboard, and the lighting states and sound are minimal. All the focus of the production is on the actors, and it's fair to say that the acting repays the attention.
The only real problem I had was with fortyfivedownstairs itself: the play is presented front-on with the audience seated in rows the length of the theatre, and this doesn't solve the inherent problems this space has with sightlines and acoustics (though I hasten to say the play is always audible). Ideally, this play should be presented in an insulated proscenium like the Playhouse; the performances, all subtlety, nuance and subterranean passion, would blossom under the amplification and focus. And frankly, they deserve such framing. Alas, this is not an ideal world, and to see some of the most accomplished acting on in Melbourne at the moment you will have to bear, with Chekhovian stoicism, the limitations of the theatre itself.
Wednesday, June 30, 2004
Afterplay by Brian Friel, directed by Malcolm Robinson with Lewis Fiander and Lyndel Rowe, until July 11 at Fortyfivedownstairs, Flinders Lane.
Tuesday, June 29, 2004
The Lightkeeper by Verity Laughton, directed by Teresa Bell, with Ian Scott. La Mama Theatre, Carlton.
Comparisons, said George Herbert, are odious; but sometimes, like US foreign policy, comparisons are thrust upon us. It's been quite interesting seeing two dramatic monologues in as many weeks, The Lightkeeper by Verity Laughton, now on at La Mama, and an MTC production of Tom Scott's The Daylight Atheist.
It may seem unfair to so directly compare shows, one of which is presented with all the slick resources of the biggest theatre company in the southern hemisphere, while the other is in the humbler (but equally eminent) environs of the tiny La Mama theatre. Tom Scott's play has come from a series of hit seasons in New Zealand, while Verity Laughton's has had a single season at Mainstreet Theatre in Adelaide. These are obvious imbalances, but on the other hand there is a kind of democracy in theatre: a performance mounted with no money, but with excellent actors and text, will trump a lavishly presented but artistically impoverished production every time.
As I said in my review of The Daylight Atheist, dramatic monologue is one of the most challenging of theatrical forms. More than any other kind of theatre, it exposes the actor and text. Bumps which might be glossed over in other kinds of plays are much harder to hide. And so, while The Lightkeeper is by no means a bad play, I couldn't help thinking about the kinds of sharp wit, emotional force and theatrical invention that animated Tom Scott's work. Laughton's text lacks Tom Scott's imaginative suppleness; strangely, given its undeniable theatricality and its status as fiction, it is limited by a sense of literalness. It's not that there's anything wrong with the play; it's a perfectly respectable, if conservative, piece of work. It's more that it lacks an anarchic spark, some imaginative gravel in the works, to lift it further beyond the sentimental nostalgia which, as it is, it only narrowly escapes.
Laughton's play is set in the mid-19th century, and tells the story of Jack Power, a former sailor turned lighthouse keeper. During the ninety or so minutes Jack, in what I suppose is the "office" of his lighthouse, relates several nautical adventures, expatiates on his work, does some whittling, keeps track of the weather, and sings snatches of sea shanties. He also tells of his marriage to Mary-Agnes - the narrative spine of the monologue. She is a widow of "education", and their meeting and marriage unfolds as a love story which extends to the delicate development of a relationship with her small son. I knew early that it would all end badly, so I hope it's not really a spoiler to say so. Despite tragedy, however, Jack, whose life has been pretty grim and certainly free of domesticity up until his marriage, continues with his work, stoically reflecting that the little happiness he has enjoyed is better than none at all.
The problem all through the production is a lack of theatrical imagination; it is as if everything has been realised to a first stage, and then stopped. Laughton is lucky to have an actor of Ian Scott's calibre to perform her text. He looks so convincingly nautical that I was taken aback; a beard and a cap, and he could be spinning yarns in any home for retired seamen. He performs well and feelingly, but I felt constantly that he was limited by both the text, which can't quite reach the lyrical or emotional heights it aims for, and Teresa Bell's rather fussy direction. While Ian Scott is always present and never boring to watch, he is capable of much more than he shows here.
Steve Jankowicz's set - the curved half-wall of a lighthouse - is an interesting concept, framing even further the small space within La Mama. But, like the soundscape - storm noises when there was a storm, magpie calls for morning, carnival sounds when Jack remembers a carnival - it remains in the realm of the merely literal, details picked to reinforce naturalism rather than the imaginative reality of theatre. God is in the details, for sure, but the art is in picking the right ones.
Monday, June 28, 2004
Wounds to the Face, By Howard Barker, directed by Jess Kingsford, with Stephanie Miller, Joshua Hewitt, Christopher Brown, Matt Boesenberg, Robert Meldrum, Stephen Phillips, Nina Landis, Michelle Hall, Nicki Paull, Adrian Mulraney. Black Box Theatre at Theatreworks, St Kilda.
To say that Howard Barker's plays are difficult to realise is probably an understatement. They are written to make demands - on audiences, directors, designers, and perhaps especially on actors. It is no use, for example, approaching Barker's drama with conventional ideas about psychology or biography; his characters are ciphers, fictional fantasies who blaze briefly on the stage and then vanish, people in improbable or impossible situations with only their present theatrical life to illuminate and animate their existences.
Wounds to the Face is a kind of theatrical essay on identity. Its drama is driven not by narrative but by questions: What is a face? What does it mean to "lose face"? What are we without a face? It examines these questions through a series of woundings by plastic surgery, political propaganda, desire and deception, in a fascinating blend of philosophical argument and sheer theatricality.
It opens with a woman in front of a mirror, painting and repainting herself with cosmetics, attempting to remake her face with despairing self-hatred. It's telling that the first scene is entitled "First, to love yourself", invoking a naricissism which theatricalises itself in the course of the play as a deadly struggle for power over oneself and over others. Its narrative moves through a series of surreal vignettes - a soldier whose face is destroyed by a grenade; an Emperor viewing a portrait of himself; a French aristocrat imprisoned in the Bastille who is not permitted to remove a mask; a war in classical Greece in which the Greeks are maimed by a machine designed to destroy their facial beauty; a slapstick duel to the death between two doubles.
It becomes clear that a face is a mask which hides as much as it reveals, the harbinger of an identity which can be a tyranny as much as a freedom and a desire. Like the poem in which Randall Jarrell looks at his aging face in a mirror and wonders what has happened to him, it seems to suggest: If just living can do this to you /Then living is terrible. Merely to have a face is to enter the cruel and exhilarating game of representation and identity.
Barker makes little attempt to imitate reality, although the realities he summons can have uncomfortable connections with those we recognise as our own. The only truths in his plays are what he calls "emotional truths". And these are legion: Barker's imagination moves to extremes and contradictions, often placing his historyless characters in moments of extreme sexual desire, or physical suffering, or emotional extremes of hatred and love. The more bizarre their circumstances, the more responsibility devolves onto the actor to make that circumstance real.
The risk in mounting Barker's work is that the actors might not able to deal with the complex challenges of the language. If an actor cannot find the necessary emotional truths - manifold truths, it must be said, which almost always include a corrosive irony - Barker's work collapses into nonsense or empty rhetoric, there being no other means of support for its reality. When an actor performs the text with suppleness as well as profundity, as most signally Adrian Mulraney does in his roles as the Emperor and the Dictator, the vignette lights up and its argument makes sense. I particularly liked also Stephanie Millar, who is on stage for the entire two hours assaulting her face with cosmetics, and Stephen Phillips, who plays the massively wounded soldier. But unfortunately, in this production the acting is all too often naive or mono-dimensional. The temptation is to substitute shouting and large gestures for passion, or to fall, as Robert Meldrum does, into a kind of all-purpose cod-poetic, deadening Barker's visceral language with rather too much respectful attention to its "poetry". Barker's poetry is of the robust, Shakespearean sort, and responds as badly as Shakespeare's does to self-conscious declaiming.
The design is interesting, and by splitting the stage into different playing areas makes a good fist of the cavernously difficult Theatreworks space. Even so, I wondered why some of it existed. This may sound totally anal, but I spent a fair bit of the play watching a ladder, wheelbarrow and bucket towards the back of the stage, waiting for them to be used; and when they weren't (or did I miss something?) I felt slightly cheated - and then puzzled as to why they were there in the first place, or what the piles of books on the floor meant - well, this is how I amuse myself. But the cozzies are very impressive.
Jess Kingsford's direction straddles Barker's extremes uncomfortably, falling down in the end perhaps because of its own earnestness as much as the mixed acting. The play itself, especially compared to most of Barker's oeuvre, is relatively short - in print, less than 30 pages - and I think one of the problems is simply that this production runs too long. It goes for almost two hours, and I wondered how much the length was simply to do with the mechanics of getting people on and off the huge stage of Theatreworks.
But the length is also surely in the playing: for the most part, this production tends to solemnity rather than seriousness. It is also curiously sexless, with never a real erotic moment despite the odd flash of cleavage or buttock; which is a pity, since there's lots of real and confronting sex in the text. It's a brave attempt, with some good moments, but in the end its achievement is decidedly mixed.
The Irresponsible Mr Barker
Tuesday, June 22, 2004
"Art has no duty" - Howard Barker
English playwright Howard Barker must be in the zeitgeist. Just last week, Barker's play Wounds to the Face opened at Theatreworks in Melbourne (review next week) and his dystopian fantasy Victory closed after a sell-out season at the Sydney Theatre Company. I found myself again browsing his book of essays, Arguments for a Theatre, and the following day noticed an extraordinary attack on Victory in the current issue of Quadrant.
Victory aroused the ire of one Geoffrey Partington. I am unable to find out much about Mr Partington; I assume he is the same Geoffrey Partington who has written other articles for Quadrant and who describes himself as "a South Australian educationalist". He writes as if he is seated in a manorial chair in tweeds, puffing on a pipe and lamenting the rise of the split infinitive, and his spluttering is the sort of thing which would warm the cockles of any old radical's heart.
On the evidence of his essay, Partington's only knowledge of Barker is what he has read in the mainstream media - his one sourced quote is from an interview in The Australian - and it is impossible to determine if he has actually seen the play he is attacking. This seems a rather poor basis for an "educationalist" to launch an attack on a writer even The Times refers to as "one of the UK's greatest living playwrights". He is entitled to his apoplexy, which mainly agitates around Barker's cavalier treatment of historical fact (more of this later). What most concerned me about his article was, in fact, this statement: "I do not wish to prevent others from spending time and money on travesties such as Victory, but I resent it bitterly if public money subsidises them in any way." 1
Since a production of the scale of the STC's would not be possible without public money, his is a call for such theatre to be effectively banned from our main stages. There have been too many calls to censor art lately, from too many quarters; and Partington's essay is in fact an attack on the basis of art's freedom, imagination itself. So perhaps it is worth examining in some detail.
Barker's plays have had occasional productions in Australian theatres over the past couple of decades, but the relative popularity of his work since the late '90s is largely due to the former director of Adelaide's Red Shed Company, Tim Maddock. He introduced Howard Barker to a new and young audience when he directed The Europeans and Uncle Vanya for Brink Productions in Sydney and Adelaide. This culiminated in an extraordinarily ambitious production of Barker's six hour epic The Ecstatic Bible, a co-production between Brink and Barker's own company, The Wrestling School, which premiered at the 2000 Adelaide Festival. Since then, the most high profile production has been the STC season of Victory, which featured a return to the stage by Judy Davis, and which attracted Partington's displeasure. I was green that I could not see it myself, but a lot of Sydneysiders did.
Partington is as peeved by Victory's full-house success as he is by its existence, and sneeringly mentions "the paucity of performances his plays receive in Britain" to suggest that those Sydney theatre crowds were sadly misled in their enthusiasm for the play. He drags out the usual abusive labels. Barker is apparently "postmodernist", a term which isn't defined, though it could be argued that his work is actually closer to the individualistic modernisms of playwrights like Jarry and Artaud; and it is heavily implied also that his work is "PC", surely one of the more bizarre criticisms of Barker's iconoclastic ouevre. Even stranger when you consider than Partington is also exercised by Barker's celebrated usage of obscene language (especially that "c" word).
But Partington's major objection to Victory is that Barker gets his history wrong. After pointing out Barker's historical errors - that certain incidents didn't happen, and that certain people never in fact met - he goes on to claim that Barker "purports that the events displayed on the stage, or something very like them, actually took place" and that he is exploiting his audience with "a tissue of sheer lies". This is, to say the least, disingenuous, since even Partington notes that Barker purports nothing of the sort, and least of all historical verisimilitude: his whole artistic credo revolts against such a conception of theatre. It also assumes that the audience of Barker's work is ignorant, malleable and credulous, which seems more than a little patronising.
If Partington takes his own strictures on historical accuracy seriously, he must disapprove of Shakespeare even more vehemently than Barker. It is generally accepted, to take an obvious example, that Richard III is a base libel of the historical Richard; for one thing, Richard didn't have a hump and, as English kings go, he was relatively just. As the director Richard Eyre says, "Shakespeare treats historical incident with little reference to fact - incidents are conflated, characters meet whose paths never crossed".2 A historian who based her research on Shakespeare's history plays would be on somewhat shaky ground, and anyone who tried to argue his tragedies were historically accurate would be considered frankly insane. The verisimilitude of Shakespeare's play lies elsewhere, in what Barker describes as "emotional truths".
Barker openly and aggressively defends his right as an artist to make things up, to imagine rather than to represent reality; and he is clearly accurate in intuiting that this is a contemporary heresy. In this, he reflects Theodor Adorno's critique of the culture industry and its effect on human imagination. Speaking of boredom, Adorno says: "it is symptomatic of the deformations perpetrated upon man by the social totality, the most important of which is surely the defamation and atrophy of the imagination...those who want to adapt must learn increasingly to curb their imagination." 3 Clearly, Barker is maladaptive; but he is seldom boring.
Partington's defamation of imagination is not novel; after all, poets were to be banned from Plato's totalitarian Republic for their moral irresponsibility in fictionalising the truth. In Partington's world, the proper reasons for attending theatre are "to improve ... historical knowledge or cultural range", and he castigates Barker fiercely for refusing to fulfil at least one of these aims (I assume that a broader "cultural range" is a landscape which does not include such "travesties" as Victory).
Barker's view of theatre's function is rather more interesting. He doesn't believe theatre is there to convey messages, or to teach, or to entertain. Rather he sees theatre as a place which makes demands on an audience, in order to lead them into moral and emotional conflict and, through this conflict, to encounter a "hard won" freedom. "In a society disciplined by moral imperatives of gross simplicity, complexity itself, ambiguity itself, is a political posture of profound strength," he says. "The play which makes demands of its audience, both of an emotional and interpretive nature, becomes a source of freedom, necessarily hard won. The play which refuses the message, the lecture, the conscience-ridden expose, but which insists on the inventive and imaginative at every point, creates new tensions in a blandly entertainment-led culture. The dramatist's obligation is (to) his own imagination. His function becomes not to educate by his superior political knowledge, for who can trust that? but to lead into moral conflict by his superior imagination." 4
In the service of this idea, Barker has written plays which range from the mythic landscapes of classical antiquity to official and unofficial histories of the great massacres of the 20th century. He advocates a tragic, confrontational theatre, the "theatre of catastrophe", which is partly derived from Artaud's Theatre of Cruelty. It is a theatre in open conflict with the rationality of the humanist philosophy which has come to dominate British theatre practice, and which Barker has contemptuously labelled the "theatre of journalism".
The "theatre of journalism" is currently the major vehicle for left wing political dissent on the British stage. Companies like Max Stafford-Clark's Out of Joint and the Tricycle Theatre have dusted off the concept of documentary theatre, pioneered by companies like the Joint Stock Theatre Group in the '70s, and given it new life. Last year Out of Joint produced a documentary play by David Hare on the privatisation of British railways, and Tricycle have developed what they call "tribunal theatre", in which they theatricalise issues such as the Hutton Inquiry or the Stephen Lawrence murder, using only words which have been uttered by the participants. Their latest production, which closed a week ago, is Guantanamo: "Honour Bound to Defend Freedom", written by Victoria Brittain and Gillian Slovo from interviews with prisoners and others connected with Camp Delta at Guantanamo Bay. These have all been extremely successful examples of political theatre, popular and critically acclaimed, which have brought debate on issues such as the Iraq War squarely into the theatrical arena.
This strand of British theatre derives from the English Brechtian tradition, via a dose of Shaw. It is also a dominant philosophy behind much Australian play writing, from the productions of the Melbourne Workers Theatre to the mainstream plays of Hannie Rayson, who herself started in community theatre. And it is the kind of theatre which launches Howard Barker into his most provocative polemic mode.
He fulminates against "the drama of conscience", "a spectacle of relentless harmony" which he sees as merely preaching to the converted at the expense of artistic freedom and invention. "There is great safety and security to be enjoyed in the exchange of conscience-ridden observations, affirmations of shared values, humanistic platitudes," writes Barker. "But the stage remains essentially sterile, and the insistence on the representation of what passes for the real world only enhances the decadent sense of social responsibility while devastating the landscape of dramatic invention." Elsewhere in the same essay, he observes: "We swim in a tepid bath of humanistic accord, writer, actor, audience, an alliance of foregone conclusions which diminishes the possibility of innovative practice." 5
This deeply challenges Partington's strange claim that Victory is a polemic for the Australian republic because, in its unhistorical portrayal of the English Civil Wars, it seeks to expose the nastiness of English monarchs. The play is, in line with Barker's stated aesthetic, a rather more complicated experience than this simplistic agenda suggests (a major reason why I wonder whether Partington has actually seen it). In Barker's dystopia no one - monarchist or reformer - comes over well, and no message is parcelled out for theatre consumers to take home.
Barker's politics are by no means conservative, and Partington's attack is a not-untypical right wing reaction to Barker's work. And given that most mainstream British theatre is broadly liberal and humanistic - that is, precisely the kind of theatre on which Barker unleashes his hostility - perhaps the reasons for the relative paucity of productions of Barker's work in Britain become clear. Although his theatre is profoundly political, it is antagonistic to most shades of the ideological spectrum. He remains a radical and exciting playwright, a necessary grit in theatrical vision, a provocative inspiration. The only real question is why our own uncomfortable and innovative talents - writers, for example, like Margaret Cameron - remain marginalised within our theatre culture, while an artist like Barker is widely celebrated. If what we seek is a vital, exciting theatre, work like this is precisely where public money ought to go.
LIFT inquiry on theatre, Independent
1 Pyrrhic Victory, Geoffrey Partington, Quadrant, June 2004
2 Utopia and other places, Richard Eyre, Vintage 1994
3 Free Time, TW Adorno, The Culture Industry, Routledge Classics, 1991
4 The Politics Beyond the Politics, Howard Barker, Arguments for a Theatre, Manchester University Press 1993
5 A bargain with impossibility: the theatre of speculation in an age of accord, ibid.
The Daylight Atheist by Tom Scott, directed by Peter Evans, with Richard Piper. Melbourne Theatre Company, Fairfax Studio, Victorian Arts Centre. June 11 to July 24.
Let me say, before anything else, that I enjoyed A Daylight Atheist. But I feared I would not. A two hour monologue is a gruelling test of both writer and actor. And also, often, of an audience. In this most challenging of theatrical forms, theatre is stripped down to its basic elements: there is literally nothing to hide behind and, as in standup comedy, disaster lurks a mere yawn away.
And being bored in the theatre rivals no other artistic experience, except possibly poetry readings. I think this is partly due to an acute embarrassment which afflicts all those present. A bad film is all past tense, but a bad play is happening right in front of you, with all the attendent feelings of complicity, pity, anger and (especially if you've paid for your tickets) existential absurdity and gloom.
The Daylight Atheist touches on themes now very familiar through Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes or Roddy Doyle's Barrytown books or, more interestingly, in the work of Seamus Deane: Irish poverty, brutal fathers, alcoholism, traumatised childhoods, and so on. I've watched the success of this kind of story with a little scepticism, since it can shade so easily into a kind of glazed sentiment about the warm-hearted, suffering, loveable Irish.
You can perhaps see why the phrases "two hour monologue" and "Irish raconteur" might summon within me a doom-laden sense of impending collision with the word "boredom" . I went to see The Daylight Atheist with more than the usual preparedness for disappointment. Well, I was wrong.
As an exercise in unobtrusive writerly skill, The Daylight Atheist is exemplary. New Zealand writer Tom Scott has created a highly contrived play without the least sense of contrivance: the sense of reality on stage is at once fluid, imaginative, subtle and cogent. And he has a good line in mordant, surreal wit. Perhaps a career in political satire is an excellent training ground for theatre, an inoculation against the kinds of dishonesty which produce sentimentality. In any case, I can see why it was a hit in New Zealand. The Daylight Atheist is popular, mainstream theatre and never tests its audience too cruelly but, on the other hand, it is never patronising. It is a portrayal, ultimately, of a dreadful, self-created loneliness: the "terrible burden of the self".
It is the story of Dan Moffat, a man who reveals himself as a right bastard: an unrepentent alcoholic, neglectful of his family when he is not being downright sadistic, self-pitying, egocentric, violent and incapable of introspection. Despite this - and given what he reveals, this is a considerable feat - it is impossible not to feel empathy for him, even at times to like him. The portrayal of Moffat is a knife-edge balancing act which exposes the character's flaws without either dehumanising him or excusing his actions.The play avoids easy moralising and sentiment, partly through the safety valve of humour, but also because it is unafraid of being serious.
Richard Piper as Dan Moffat rises to meet the demands of the script. And they are considerable: he is on stage for almost two hours, switching between pathos, hilarity and brutality. The script calls for him to play all the characters in his stories: his wife Dingbat, his son Egghead (part of his cruelty is that neither of them are ever given the courtesy of their proper names), his Maori friend Jack, and once, in a comic highlight, two entire soccer teams, the high school athsmatics and the local lunatic asylum. There are moments of genuine pathos, as when Moffat describes the funeral of the only human being he seems to have ever loved, his work-mate Jack. (He reads a very fine poem: if it is Scott's, I'm impressed. Sometimes the ideas of poetry I encounter in theatre make me cringe. But this is merely an aside.)
The technical demands alone are considerable, but virtuosity is only the beginning of what's required. The first few minutes of the performance I saw indicated how easily this piece could dissolve into empty caricature. But once Piper warmed up, it was one of those occasions where an actor seems to be possessed, and some kind of magic seems to occur before your eyes. I've seen Richard Piper on stage many times, but I've never seen his face and physicality so transformed. It's a compelling performance.
Christina Smith's set, a bedroom in an advanced state of chaos and disrepair, is, like the script itself, less realistic and more theatrical than it first seems. I always wonder about cluttered, realistic sets, but for once it seemed appropriate. Piper rummages among the mess, finding a children's tricycle, a spade, a helmet, a coat, which become props for his stories. I liked the simplicity of Peter Evans' direction; like the script, its skill was unobstrusive. To my ear, there could have been a little more silence in its orchestration: on occasion the transition from, say, a state of pathos to a joke felt rushed and glossed over, perhaps out of a fear of losing the audience's attention. Given that the audience was riveted, it could have easily afforded this kind of variation in its rhythms.
Without it ever being explicit, or described from any viewpoint except Dan Moffat's self-interested narration, the play calls up a shadow narrative: the story of the family he abuses. His references to his wife and children are brutal and dismissive, and he very seldom (if at all) shows remorse for his actions. But when, for example, he speaks of driving home through a night full of rain and notices his wife cycling to a parent-teacher meeting, a sight which causes him only a moment's puzzlement, it opens up the appalling existence he has forced on his family. The misery he has caused and his consequent self-loathing pullulates underneath, and is tacitly acknowledged in his meek acceptance of his family's withdrawal from him. He protects himself from self-knowledge with a virulent sense of humour - what Richard Eyre, speaking of his own father, describes as the psychopath's fondness for practical jokes - and a resentful self-pity. The pity the play invites for Dan Moffat, however, is of an entirely different and less forgiving kind.
Tuesday, June 15, 2004
A Sufi Valentine, poems by Rumi, Hafiz and Ali Alizadeh, film by Bill Mousoulis, performed by Ali Alizadeh. La Mama Theatre, until June 20.
I am inclined to favour Sufism, as it is the only religion sensible enough to build shrines to poets. It is often called the mystical heart of Islam, and its prophets speak of a path of love, knowledge and action, in which the heart is regarded as the organ of spiritual knowledge and vision. It is the Islamic version of Christian Gnosis, the unmediated union with God, though perhaps it bears a closer relationship to the love mysticism of mediaeval Christianity, which took its inspiration from the Song of Songs.
Given this, it is easy to see why many Sufi mystics, like the Gnostics and the mediaeval mystics, were persecuted as heretics. Sufi poets such as Hafiz of Shiraz were often outspoken in their criticisms of tyranny and dogma. And in the great Sufi poem The Conference of the Birds, Farid Un-Din Attar outlines the steps towards enlightenment, the Way of the Sufi, through a series of narratives. Many of these speak of love that flies in the face of social, sexual or religious convention - commonly homosexual love, forbidden in the Koran, but also love between those of different religions, or of different social status.
These connections between secular politics and sexual transgression remind me why love was outlawed in the totalitarian society Orwell envisioned in 1984 - its anarchic desire cleaves too easily to demands for wider freedoms. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to equate the love of the Sufis with the sexual mores of, say, Sex in the City, for the contemporary notion of sex as commodity would be anathema to Sufism. Unlike ascetic Sufi philosophy, this empty libertinage objectifies the body and so alienates sexuality from the self and the other; Sufism seeks the unity of soul and body and, through the purifying fire of passion, the dissolution of the ego and eventual unity with the divine.
In A Sufi Valentine, Iranian-born Melbourne poet Ali Alizadeh places himself squarely, if agnostically, in this aesthetic tradition. And not without what might be taken as a certain arrogance - for this half hour performance, he puts himself on the bill with two of the greatest Sufi poets, Rumi and Hafiz, who hail respectively from 12th and 14th century Persia. But as Yevteshenko said to young poets: "Be equal to your talent, not your age. / At times let the gap between them be embarrassing. / Fear not / To be young, precocious..."
Despite the excuse of youth, there is neither embarrassment nor precocity in Alizadeh's performance. A Sufi Valentine is what is sometimes grandly called cross-media art - that is, it incorporates elements of a poetry reading, theatre and film - but what is most striking about it is its simultaneous humility and ambition. As theatre, it is without pretence: Alizadeh enters the stage, lights some candles on a table, sits down, opens a book and, with clarity and feeling, reads some poems. As he reads, Bill Mousoulis's film is projected on a screen next to him, as a visual and partly sonic counterpoint to the poems. The film is without dialogue, and tells four simple narratives: the meetings of two pairs of young lovers, an exiled poet and a dancer hesitating before her dance. They are all portrayed in instantly recognisable and deliberately banal suburban contexts: alone in a bedroom, waiting for a bus, sitting in a cafe, walking into a gym.
The effect is to place the poems among the human minutae of contemporary existence. This placing struck me as utterly consistent with the Sufi admonition to "live reality"; the enlightenment of Sufism is an immanent rather than transcendent path. The film does not aim to be illustrative; instead, it explores how the desire which inflames the dancer, the poet and the lovers is common to them all, and is at once contemporary and ancient. The rhythms and shifts of Mousoulis' film, perhaps inevitably given the literalness of the medium, are coarser than those of the implied emotional narrative of the sequence of poems; film is simply unable to reflect the many-angled meanings within these deceptively simple poems. I felt this especially at the end: after a brilliant initial flowering, the ecstatic moment does not sustain itself, and merely repeats and diminishes.
Alizadeh gives the poems their weight, without any urge towards empty oration. For me, it was a treat also to hear traces of the Persian, those rhythms and sounds that are inevitably lost in translation. What remains with me are these lines of Alizadeh's, which perhaps best express the impetus towards resistance that he has taken from the Sufi tradition:
I Carve with the Pen’s tip
ready to cut
and release the poetry
and the alphabet
so that I unlock the coffers of language
so that I print freedom
on the pages of this fucking prison.
Happy New, by Brendan Cowell. Directed by Ben Harkin, with Dai Paterson, Angus Sampson and Jude Beaumont. The Store Room, North Fitzroy, June 4-20.
The chief virtue of Happy New is the energy of its writing. Happy New, the second play by young Sydney playwright, Brendan Cowell, concerns two brothers who as children were locked in a chicken coop for a few months by their mother. As a result they are agoraphobes who never leave their tiny flat, and during the course of the play they revert to the chicken mentality they absorbed during their childhood trauma. A third character is a television journalist who has turned the chicken brothers into celebrities and is having an affair with the apparently less psychotic of the pair.
What ensues is a somewhat confused indictment of the nature of contemporary celebrity, the way the media objectifies human beings into consumable items, and eventually of the cannibalistic nature of "reality" television, which devours reality itself. This is interspersed with mordant reflections on the nature of power and human relationships. The play climaxes with the brothers' self-destructive regression into the chicken trauma of their childhoods, in a kind of fowlish Lord of the Flies.
The play enacts a number of neuroses, mainly through the monologic aphasia of its characters. Their inability to communicate despite the avalanches of words they tip over each other reinforces how isolated they are, atomised selves in an over-mediated society. Often the monologues are lists, rather in the manner of the endless lists of consumer objects in American Psycho, and with as little evolution; a relentless accumulation covering the deep void of the contemporary individual. The only shared experience is between the brothers and, as becomes clear, this is based on the power of one over the other, a brutal co-dependency which becomes an emblem for all human relationships.
The play's argument never quite transcends the banality of its root observations (that human beings, like chickens, have hierarchical social structures; that the mass media is parasitic). But despite a modicum of over-writing, there is much to like in the vigor of its dialogue and in how Cowell is grappling theatrically with the ideas he raises. In particular, he evades the vice of exposition. Coherency is not an unarguable good in theatre, but a little more in this play might have helped. Part of its problem is, I think, the difficulty of critiqueing something within its own terms of reference; the play exploits the mass media system of values its also seeks to indict, and this creates an internal conumdrum the play is unable to overcome.
This dilemma is amplified by Ben Harkin's direction, which places Cowell's linguistic riffs in what is basically a naturalistic set, framed as a chicken coop (but also as a television) and then directs it as if it were a tv comedy sketch. The lighting and sound are minimal and literal, and Harkin is never quite sure what to do with his actors when they are not speaking, which often leaves large parts of the very tiny stage as simply dead space. This makes the stage strangely static, and has the effect of fracturing the play itself into a series of strangely unrelated vignettes.
The acting is almost all mugging, as if grotesque emphasis were the same as performative power. I found myself admiring Jude Beaumont's lung capacity and physical expertise on heels, but little else in a performance remarkably free of nuance or feeling. Dai Paterson gives a perfectly fine performance, but the only time I perceived any real dynamic on stage was in a few moments from Angus Sampson, who most of the time I enjoyed least of all: he revealed in these moments the possibility of some real power.
The direction effectively neutralises what might have been moments of actual feeling and gives every action the air of occurring in a consequenceless vacuum. This is all cartoonish pow and bam interspersed with wisecracks, and it's hard to believe for a second that anything that happens to these characters actually matters. Uneasy reflection is dispersed by easy laughs; and as the bleakness at the core of the play is obscured, the comedy shades comfortably to beige.
Wednesday, June 09, 2004
Angels in America by Tony Kushner, ABC-TV, directed by Mike Nichols
Clockwork me, my brothers and sisters, I done viddy what I viddied. And if it wasn't the whole of it, it was because your humble narrator, full of rocks and flimflams as so she is, boots minus and creeching plus, punched the viddy button and cried out, no no no, no more!
Them viddy droogs lay down Angels in America in all its gorgeousness and give it a right kicking, my loves. They give it the old in out and fisted it until it was dead dead dead. And why, my brothers and sisters? Why did they do it so? Why stre-e-e-tch it out on the old rack? Why sweeten it up with vomit music that would bore an elevator to the doldrums? Where were the old hair-on-ends? Where was the sharp jokings? Even my lovely droog Al Pacino, that beautiful tough old melchek, he was acting his plotts off my sisters, but even he couldn't save it. They turned my lovely into a nice piece of viddy because they thinks we're all a bunch of loopy housewives who needs those beautiful bright pills to waft us off to bye-bye land. They make it nice as nice, they stick in pretty vids to distract us, they make all fusses to weigh it down because they think it needs to be as real as real. But my lovelies it isn't real, it's only true.
But think in your teeny tiny minds. The Angels are an angry play, my brother and sisters. They is full of death and millennial madness, they is grand as Ludwig van. They was rotting of AIDS in Ronnie Reagan's Amerika back then in 1985. I thinks in my teeny tiny mind, how horrorshock to see this now, just as Reagan's biting the green turf all stiff and lovely after ninety three years of forgetting and all the slimy news wiggles on and on about his grandness. How to be reminded, my brothers and sisters, of those fiery lizards he bred for our delectations. O how they rain down on us now. But this is sex with a raincoat on, my lovelies, safe as safe.
It did make me think of that melchek Adorno, though, that snobby old modernist. How he planted it in the gulliver, my friends. He viddied the lot of it, I tell you now, he would have hated it all and even your humble narrator. But sometimes he got it right. He would have smecked out loud to see how right he got it, how they take a lovely angry thing like the Angels and shovel it through the sausage machine so it comes out all minced and antibiotic. Here he is: Works of art are ascetic and unashamed; the culture industry is pornographic and prudish. Prudish it was, my lovelies, and porno. No my brothers and sisters, I won't viddy the rest of it. I have the book of the play, I'll viddy it there, in all its lewd grandosity and yumyumyum. And there I'll stay.
Sunday, June 06, 2004
Devised and performed by Peter Finlay. Directed by Lloyd Jones. La Mama Theatre, Melbourne, to June 6; Bakehouse Theatre, Adelaide, June 30 to July 10.
Peter Finlay is an actor with an unnerving quality of violence. He can expose an unexpectedly louche physicality, which emerges with frightening force and suddenness from beneath a controlled and disciplined surface. When he is not acting well, this apparent contrast between surface and depth can result in a mannered performance close to parody, all surface skill over a core of emptiness. But in Projections 1, this potential flaw is transformed into a magnificent asset.
The premise is simple: Finlay has put together a collage of extracts from various movies, including Apocalypse Now, Silence of the Lambs, Stars Wars, A Few Good Men, Terminator and Pulp Fiction. Most of the extracts, so far as I could tell from my foggy memories of those movies, are accurate, but some - such as the Silence of the Lambs extract, in which Hannibal Lecter suddenly transforms into Carl Jung ruminating on the murderousness which exists at the bottom of our collective psyche - have been extended or turned.
It gives Finlay a chance to show off his considerable technical skills. He performs whole dialogues: captor and captive, interrogator and interrogated, a court scene, the famous conversation about hamburgers between John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction. His Apocalypse Now Redux, in particular, is really something to see. It occurred to me, watching it, that the real star of the show is Finlay's voice, a superbly agile instrument which makes those famous performances of Dennis Hopper, Marlon Brando and Martin Sheen eerily present in the theatre. But this somewhat underplays his physical skill, and how, despite how funny it often is, this performance goes beyond parody or mimicry.
Lloyd Jones has directed Finlay with great precision, and the two have ingeniously focused the individual performer even further by making Finlay control the minimal lights and props, and reducing all colours to a chiaroscuro of black and white. Much of the performance occurs in semi-darkness. Finlay's lighting consists of a torch and a desk lamp which are switched on and off and directed at will. He is a kind of theatrical one-man-band: he modulates his voice through plastic pipes and other simple objects, extending its range to incomprehensible radio gibberish, and explores all the sonic possibilities of his props: as drums, gunshots, ceiling fan. It's stunningly effective.
However, Projections 1 is much more than the extended party trick which it might have easily become. Since it is a single performer invoking all these voices and performances, the effect is very different from an exercise which splices together all these extracts together to make a film collage. When the violence explodes, it is shocking in a way that film cannot be: it is occurring right in front of you, barely ten feet away, and you are not quite confident that you are immune from its physical threat. And it is hard to escape the conviction that this is a particularly personal show. These are uneasy projections: as Prufrock says in Eliot's poem, it is "as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen". Movies are, after all, the magic lanterns of our time, and their myths are influential in shaping our social and personal realities. Projections 1 is like being admitted into the hauntings of a singular consciousness: and what emerges is an abiding anxiety about masculinity and violence.
For all its concentration on popular movies, it is a surprisingly literary piece; Apocalypse Now harks back, for example, to Conrad and Eliot, the "hollow men" quoted by Kurtz. This literary play is picked up in the performance and reflects on the subtexts of all these different films. We live, after all, in an Americanised culture which is dominated by movies, and what Finlay is exposing is the murderousness at its heart: as Kurtz says, The horror, the horror. It is a particularly timely meditation as we quarrel over the rights and wrongs of our participation in the war on Iraq, and recoil from the violences which invasion and occupation always entail. The lines between reality and movie fiction are blurring further into hyperreality: the Terminator himself is the Governor of California and George W. Bush adopted the flak jacket and macho pose of the archetypal American Hero to announce victory over Iraq. I could have wished for more finessing of the script: the misogyny and homophobia which underlie these models of militarised masculinity are barely touched on. But that is a minor quibble.
Finlay finishes with a souped-up version of the ending of the Odyssey, and it is maybe here that this piece is most bleak. For in this story, when the Hero returns from war and adventuring, he is not welcomed home from exile: he enters his kingdom anonymously, like an assassin. And even before his kisses his wife, his first job is to murder all his rivals. It suggests that, from this constructed world of male violence, there is no coming home.
Friday, June 04, 2004
Some notes on why I'm doing this
Blogging, like much else in the cyberuniverse, is a chance to be your own star. Even if no one reads your blog, there's the mirage of public exposure. It's peculiarly seductive. But apart from the appeal to an illusory sense of self-importance, there's another reason to like the concept. Blogging has re-introduced the independent public commentator; but unlike underground magazines or samizdat, which were available only to the few, anyone who has a computer with an internet connection can look at a blog. I've noticed with interest, for example, the sudden appearance in Iraq of independent journalists, funded by their readers, who are able to report without the institutional and personal constraints which trammel those in the mainstream media.
I've kept a personal and somewhat irregular blog for some months now. And one day it struck me that a blog that focused on theatre criticism would be a most interesting thing to do. The format is perfect, I can review whatever I like and, unlike reviews which appear in periodicals or newspapers, the commentary itself is always accessible for public record. Another interesting facet is a blog's interactivity, which gives reviewing the possibility of being much closer to what I believe it, ideally, is: an important part of the dialogue within theatre itself. Criticism articulates the incorporation of the audient (I am never quite sure what an "audience" is) into the strange, vexed and luminous network of relationships which make up this phenomenon we call theatre. The fact remains (unless one is Grotowski, which luckily most of us are not) that theatre does not exist without those who witness it.
So I decided to start this blog, as an experiment. Will anyone read it? I don't know. But I hope it will be fun to do and interesting to read. And perhaps it will create a forum for ways of thinking about theatre other than those corseted and unenlightening commentaries which dominate mainstream theatre reviewing here. I won't necessarily be writing about local productions, although I plan to focus on them. I take my brief to include anything to do with theatre that interests me, including scripts, dvds, conversations and books; and I take theatre to be an international phenomenon. As I am only one person, and because nobody is paying me, I will not be able to cover everything that happens in this town; this blog will be exploratory rather than comprehensive. I will aim to write at least one review a week, publishing on Wednesdays.
I feel strangely obliged to say something about my previous, rather controversial, incarnation as a critic for The Bulletin. It will be expected of me by those who have long enough memories to recall it. (It often surprises me that people do remember it - has nothing happened since?) But all that was long, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away... and the fact is, I have absolutely no interest in rehashing old and dull arguments. (New and interesting arguments are another kettle.) Although pride prompts me to say, for the record and contrary to the wisdom of gossip, that I wasn't sacked: I resigned because I could make more money writing poetry.
My work didn't need justifying then and it shouldn't need justifying now. But I remember the lessons I learned about the mechanisms of censorship within Australian culture and the consequent impoverishment of our cultural lives: and I have not forgotten them.