After the Rain ~ theatre notes

Monday, February 21, 2005

After the Rain

After the Rain by Sergi Belbel, directed by Scott Gooding, designed by Kathryn Sproul, with Gloria Ajenstat, Penelope Bartlau, Simon Kearney, Colin MacPherson, Melissa Parente, Clare Springett, Elizabeth Thomson and Shaun Worrell. Translated by John London, David George and Xavier Rodriguez Rosell. Vicious Fish Theatre at Theatreworks until March 5.

I haven't often walked out of a theatre as baffled as I did from After the Rain. I felt clear on only one point: I hadn't enjoyed the experience. But mere reactive opinion is, after all, the least interesting of responses. Why I was so bored, puzzled and frustrated is much harder to work out.

I had gone to see this production with high expectations. After the Rain is the second part of an on-going project by Vicious Fish Theatre to present the plays of Catalan playwright Sergi Belbel to Melbourne audiences. The first, Caresses, was a drama rooted in a gritty urban vernacular, and revealed a complex, poetic playwright with an intriguing formal imagination. Moreover, After the Rain won the Molière award - the French equivalent of the Tony - for Best Comedy in 1999.

It is very difficult to see what the French found so funny, or to square the tough theatrical sophistication of the play I saw last time with the apparent pointlessness of After the Rain. This makes me suspect that the first culprit might be the translation itself. Unlike Caresses, this play has three translators, and perhaps there were simply too many cooks muddling the broth.

But even given the possible shortcomings of the English text, the evening need not have been so tedious. A great deal has to be shafted home to Scott Gooding's deadeningly literal direction, which is often bizarrely at odds with the script. I'm not sure that I've ever seen a play so thoroughly obscured by a production, and this makes analysing it more perilous than usual.

My spies tell me that the French translator of Belbel's play was one of the most respected in the country, which tends to confirm my notion that the English translation has problems. But it's possible also - given that theatre in France is, for good or ill, a director's theatre - that After the Rain is an inferior play to Caresses, but was dressed to advantage with a brilliant production.

I'm unable to read Catalan, and can only guess what the play might be like in its original language. Certainly I can form no opinion of Mr Belbel. Squinting through my memories of the script, I can make out echoes of a poetic based on repetition, perhaps a shadow of the kind of linguistic satire that Michel Vinaver attains in his own plays on corporatism: in any case, various hints of verbal complexity and depth that might have made something interesting of what otherwise seems to be a structurally predictable work.

After the Rain is set on the roof of an multistorey office building in a city which has been drought-stricken for more than two years. It consists of a series of short scenes between various office workers who escape for an illegal cigarette. In this corporate world, addiction to nicotine can cost a worker their job, and so (in the beginning, at least) the office workers' trysts are secretive and paranoid. However, as the play progresses, it turns into a kind of surreal comedy, with love affairs and corporate intrigues being played out between dream-scenes and increasingly irrational events. It culminates in comedic Shakespearean couplings, with various characters abandoning their restricted corporate lives to run away in happy pairs.

Presumably part of the metaphor at play here is between sterility (drought, emotional and literal, in an authoritarian corporatised world) and an opposing fertility (rain, sex and babies). There is a troubling subtext of misogyny which is, at least in this production, presented without irony: a long speech by one character about how much he hates powerful women; the brutal and reasonless murder and rape of the wife of another character; the resolution of one woman's madness by that old remedy, "a good fuck"; another woman's life, however successful otherwise, rendered meaningless by her infertility. Given my wholesale reservations, I am utterly unsure what to make of this aspect of the play: it could be commenting on misogyny, rather than being itself misogynistic. It is impossible to tell.

I can only surmise that some mistaken decisions were made early on about how to approach the text, which then trapped the entire process. This seems borne out by the design. Kathryn Sproul's set - a rooftop set forestage, surrounded by metal railings - forces the actors to clamber on and off stage via a ladder, which makes entrances and exits cumbersome, time-consuming and mind-numbingly predictable. A row of watercoolers set behind the raised roof do nothing more than suggest what we already know, that off-stage there are offices. Dominating the back of the theatre is a huge screen, which remains strangely unexploited for almost the entire evening (even some projected clouds would have been welcome). To emphasise the static staging, the lighting states remain monotonous for the whole show, shifting maybe twice to indicate that a particular scene is a dream rather than "reality".

The effect is to reduce to a stilted literalness a play which is clearly meant to move fluidly between surreal and actual realities. This mono-dimensional direction extends to the performances, which attack the script with an edge of hysterical parody that tramples any subtleties it might have had. Simon Kearney and Colin MacPherson are the only actors who manage to find some kind of complexity in the script, and certainly Simon Kearney seems to be in a different play.

These problems are compounded by a lack of attention to detail. For example: perhaps to emphasise the corporate tyranny, the performers are costumed in uniforms that are in no way supported by the script, which means that a long speech by the Blonde Secretary about how she never wears black shoes is somewhat undermined by the fact that she is, in fact, wearing black shoes. And so on.

It's hard to escape the conviction that this is a very naive production of a potentially interesting play. I only hope the next production in the series serves us - and Sergi Belbel - rather better.




Cliff Ellen said...

I haven't seen 'After the Rain' but it's nice to know that Alison has not lost her touch after all these years.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks Cliff! er... I think :)

See you round.