Alison's Festival Diary #4
Death and the Ploughman by Johannes von Saaz, translated by Michael West. Directed by Anne Bogart, with Will Bond, Stephen Webber and Ellen Lauren, SITI Company @ the CUB Malthouse. La Clique ... A Sideshow Burlesque, The Spiegeltent, Arts Centre Forecourt
Little Alison is getting very tired, but I'm sure nobody feels sorry for me. There are certainly worse ways of exhausting oneself. For me - and for many others I have spoken to - the Melbourne Festival is a rare feast, with at least a couple of events that will stay with me for a long time. You can't win 'em all, and I can't say that I've enjoyed everything I've seen, but as someone said to me, it's made Melbourne feel like an exciting place to be. Melburnians must agree - every show I've attended has been packed out.
One show I couldn't get to, but recommend, is the very charming Felix Listens to the World by the young Melbourne trio Suitcase Royale, which is on at the Fairfax Studio at the Art Centre in a double bill with Gilgamesh. Still a couple more events in my diary before I get my life back...
So, to some reports:
The text for Death and the Ploughman was written in 1400 by a minor German clerk, who had just lost his wife in childbirth. In the course of the poem, a Ploughman bereaved of his wife curses Death, demanding recourse from Heaven and revenge for Death's theft of his happiness.
What ensues is a remarkable dialogue in which the raging, grief-stricken Ploughman arraigns Death with the fundamental injustice of mortality. Death, the impersonal end of kings and peasants alike, asserts his justice and necessity: he has spared the Ploughman's wife the miseries of old age and decreptitude; he has taken her while she is still virtuous and pure, before she corrupts, as all womankind inevitably must; if he did not assert his sway, the world would be overpopulated.
Death, the ultimate realist and cynic, asserts that the Ploughman should just resign himself: the price of love is anguish, and if he wishes not to feel pain, he should not love. Human desire is all vanity and emptiness. The Ploughman, naturally enough, wonders why God had awarded him life, if the only way to survive it is to avoid all joy.
In the end God resolves the quarrel, awarding the argument to Death, but the honour to the Ploughman. The logic of what the translator Michael West calls "one of the most blasphemous models of piety in Western literature" is all with Death, but the emotional appeal is with the Ploughman.
The poem was transformed into a play by the Gate Theatre in Dublin, and after that picked up by the SITI Theatre Company and director Anne Bogart, who is a disciple of Tadashi Suzuki's theatrical methods and also of an acting process she calls "Viewpoints", derived from theories of post modern dance originated in the 1970s by choreographers like Tricia Brown.
These techniques are then applied to the adapted poem. At first the aesthetic looks promisingly stern: a black square outlined in white is delineated in the middle of the huge Merlyn stage, a bench at each diagonal corner. Behind the square is a huge photograph of some mediaeval cloisters. Death (Stephen Webber), a bureaucratic figure in a suit, bowler hat and umbrella, stands at the back. The Ploughman (Will Bond), in grey trousers and white shirt, stands at the front next to his wife (Ellen Lauren). In a few moments' mime, her departure to the arms of Death transforms her into the Woman, Death's other voice. The actors then work around a grid formed in the square by the sharp lighting design, and the bored spectator (me) can pass the time predicting where they would next place the bench, or which box of light the actor might next step into.
Most of the time, it is impossible to see what the abstract movements - some of them recognisable from Suzuki workshops - have to do with the text. These abstractions are unsuccessfully integrated with literal human gesture. Each movement is arrested, discretely separate from the next, which gives a strangled and conflicted feel to the stage dynamic but, for all its sharpness, the choreography seems curiously blurred. Aside from the comic sequences, it is like watching a slow, gestural equivalent of Tourette's syndrome. Stephen Webber (Death), clearly a considerable actor, is the only performer who seems to create an authority in space and make some sense of the movements.
What is surprising about this production, given its avant garde dress, is its sentimentality. It bears no stink of mortality (all those black and white squares are very clean) and it wholly lacks irony, a quality that is certainly corrosively present in the poem. This sentimentality is driven home by possibly the worst sound design I have ever heard: it is banally illustrative (mention of war brings gunshots and babies crying) and irritatingly obstrusive, like a bad film score. The lack of silence betrays a certain mistrust in the power of both spoken and physical theatrical language.
There was no point where I felt any emotional connection, however untraceable, with what was happening on stage; the ending, in which the Ploughman makes his peace with Death, is marred by a performance that is sheer mugging. It made me think of Milan Kundera's comment that sentimentality is, in fact, a absence of feeling.
It was a relief the following night, then, to flee the realms of high art for the 1920s surrounds of the Spiegeltent and see something wickedly and unabashedly entertaining. La Clique...A Sideshow Burlesque is a slickly orchestrated series of acts - comic, erotic, eye-poppingly grotesque or just plain beautiful - peppered with a goodly dose of wit.
It includes the funniest strip tease ever, a magic act where Ursula Martinez finds a red handkerchief in surprising places; Miss Behave, the clownish female sword swallower with a most flexible tongue; the acrobatic blonds from Poland, the Caesar Twins, for whom the phrase "shock-headed" seems to have been invented, and the gorgeous torso of David O'Mer, who has an extremely aerial bathtime which drenches the front row, despite the plastic thoughtfully placed over their laps.
Weaving through the show like a ghost of the Berliner Kabarett is the smoky voice of Camille O'Sullivan, who has her own solo show at the Spiegeltent. (Now, that would certainly be worth seeing.) La Clique is all extravagant sequins, impossible corsets, gorgeously naked skin and lots of water (the Caesar Twins have their own turn in a fishbowl). Hot, damp and sexy; you suddenly remember the word "risque". Definitely one not to miss.
Tuesday, October 18, 2005
Alison's Festival Diary #4