MIAF: The Odyssey ~ theatre notes

Saturday, October 15, 2005

MIAF: The Odyssey

Alison's Festival Diary #3

The Odyssey by Tom Wright, directed by Michael Kantor, designed by Anna Tregloan. With Paul Blackwell, Leon Ewing, Francis Greenslade, Jessica Ipkendanz, Rita Kalnejais, Benjamin Lewis, Belinda McClory, Suzannah McDonald, Kris McQuade, Margaret Mills and Stephen Phillips. Malthouse Theatre at the Workshop.

Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns
driven time and again off course, once he had plundered
the hallowed heights of Troy...

So begins (in Robert Fagle's translation) one of the formative texts of Western civilisation, The Odyssey: the tale of Odysseus' long return home from war. At least 2700 years old, Homer's epic has inspired countless translations and retellings. The word "odyssey", which in its Greek root simply means "the story of Odysseus", is part of our language.

The Malthouse's production of this epic is an unashamedly ambitious undertaking. There should be much to like about it - the music, composed by Iain Grandage, is thrillingly theatrical, David Franzke's industrial sound design deeply textured, the mise en scene often arresting, the cast various and talented. But at its heart is a text of such unremitting banality that it compromises all these efforts. It is The Odyssey for Hi-5.

It certainly looks spectacular. Anna Tregloan's extraordinary set dominates the huge workshop space - a semi-circular rusty edifice like the wreck of some arcane and ancient piece of machinery. It is punctuated by doors on two levels, the top ones reached by iron ladders. In the central space is a revolve, turned by the actors, that can be flooded with water. A huge iron central door can be drawn up and closed with a metallic clang.

The highlight of the show is the appearance of the Sirens. Odysseus (Stephen Phillips) is suspended mid-air, lashed to an imaginary mast; the iron door opens to a song of unearthly beauty accompanied live on a violin, and the Sirens enter, dressed as veiled brides, while Odysseus writhes in frenzied desire. It's a wordless scene of dramatic and poetic beauty that makes you sigh for missed opportunity. Likewise, for Odysseus' visit to the Underworld, where he talks to the dead, a vast curtain of black netting covered with tickets - presumably the names of the dead - falls and divides the audience from the stage. A ragged grey screen bisects the revolve, and the dead appear lit by a naked flame in a bowl, pathetic in their nudity, to tell Odysseus their sad stories. A misjudgement of timing means this scene continues for too long, diminishing its power, but there's no denying its visual efficacy.

Ironically, one problem with this production is in fact the set - it dominates the space so much that all action is forced to be subordinate to its demands. But the real problem lies with the text. It is an unimaginative retelling of Odysseus' journey - compare it, say, with what the Coen Brothers did with the story in O Brother, Where Art Thou? or Kazantzakis' The Odyssey, where Odysseus returns home only to leave again. It gestures towards a crudely Jungian idea of the feminine that is startling for its misogyny, but otherwise all the imagination exists in the visual details of Michael Kantor's production, which sets the action after World War 2.

The language of the original epic, writes the classicist Bernard Knox, was at once heightened and popular, a difficult language that existed only in epic poetry but nevertheless lived on the tongues of ordinary Greeks. Homer's words "maintained their hold on the tongues and the imagination of the Greeks by their superb literary quality - the simplicity, speed and directness of the narrative technique, the brilliance and excitement of the action, the greatness and imposing humanity of the characters".

There is no sense that these qualities are carried over into Tom Wright's text. But more crucially, there is a puzzling absence in his language, evident in his earlier work but particularly highlighted here, perhaps because of the challenge of the original. Writers are people who respond to the materiality of language, its sensuous, sonic and dynamic qualities. This is especially true of poetry composed in an oral culture, and of writing for theatre, which is a place where language is physicalised and made gestic. This sensuous response to language is by no means a quality at odds with intelligence, but is embedded deeply within its turnings: even the most abstract thought has an erotic dynamic, the "wooing of a meaning" which is "inseparable from its absence" (Anne Carson).

When Wright reaches for the poetic, the language is almost completely emptied of this sensuous resonance. Repetition - a subtle and complex poetic art - becomes mind-numbing, and simplicity mere simple-mindedness. Epic grandeur is denoted by archaic grammatical reversals, like those in bad fantasy novels - "all corners of the earth have I seen". And so on.

The cliches and bathetic homilies roll out mercilessly. About half an hour in, disbelievingly, I started to write down some of the lines. "It's death," intones one unfortunate actor (I didn't note which one) "that makes life so important." "Your story is written on the breeze," says another. And another: "All around us History is marching!" Odysseus informs us nonsensically at one point that "I"m running out of time to fulfil my fate!" And the lesson we are to take away: "Life - life - that is it - that is all - ...Life! - fight for it!" So much for the rich simplicity of Homer.

It's a mystery to me how actors can say lines like these, or how they can deal with the dialogue, which sometimes reminded me of that curiously hypnotic anime cartoon Dragonball Z. They do their best, but the only possibility with language like this is declamation. And declaim they do.

On the structural level, Wright has removed the stories of Penelope and Telemachus, Odysseus' wife and son, thus emptying the home that Odysseus longs for (as we are told many, many times) of its major emotional significance. He has also made bizarre decisions, such as taking out Homer's best joke: when the Cyclops asks who it is who has blinded him, Odysseus cunningly replies "No one!", so that when the Cyclops complains later that no one blinded him, the gods laugh at him. But in this version, Odysseus gives his name and address, for reasons which remain completely unclear.

He has also pointedly made Odysseus a hapless victim, not of the Gods, but of women. Even Homer (Kris McQuade), who with writerly sadism puts her character through the mill, is a woman. The feminine - cloyingly maternal or sadistically and manipulatively sexual - represents only forgetting or death. "I have come from something dark," says Odysseus, referring presumably to Troy but also to Other Things. "We will all return to something dark...a deep hole in the earth". Penelope, the enduring symbol of fidelity, is erased almost altogether. Athena (Suzannah McDonald), the virgin goddess of war who orchestrates the events, is bafflingly infantalised as a little girl in a sailor suit. The virgin/whore dichotomy is here in spades.

The play finishes at the point when Odysseus is about to return home and slaughter Penelope's suitors, who have been making riot on Ithaca, thus underscoring heavily and without irony a patriarchal moral (a kingless country must inevitably turn to anarchy) that is actually mitigated in the original by Penelope's womanly authority. There is a conservatism embedded in this script that is deeply at odds with its gestures towards innovation. It is mystifying to me why so much money, skill and resources were lavished on a text of such intellectual and theatrical poverty.

Picture: Belinda McClory as Circe and Stephen Phillips as Odysseus in The Odyssey


Anonymous said...

i couldn't agree more with this. A richly designed work with all the bells and whistles but a thin and lifeless script. Horribly disappointing.

Anonymous said...

And so it goes. Croggon --- for all her wonderful critical sophistication --- remains a fan of the writer's theatre. Wright and Kantor never have been. The supposed banality of the spoken language is, to my mind, hardly the issue (and frankly who cares --- as Wright once said to me, if you want to delve into words, read a book, dont see a theatre show). The visual imagination which Croggon downplays here is thus the raison d'etre of this work, as it is with most of the Wright/Kantor pieces and for that matter their old partner Bazza Kosky.

So what's wrong with a show that is all visuals, screaming noises, and wonderful uses of a steel set? Why is this not good? To be sure, compared to their previous work, this is a remarkably classic work, one which homes in on a final arrival, a progressive stripping back and dehumanisation which is basically outlined in the 1st scene and only unfolds in the later material. Ironically therefore, this is probably one of Kantor/Wright's most accessible pieces because of this clear simplicity.

The gender is a far more complicated issue. Wright/Kantor have long been on a heavy Jungian kick, since at least the bad good old days of Gilgul, thru to Ubu, but most markedly in Plague Yr and Ham Funeral. These are worlds of cliched gender divides sketched within a man's world and destablised by the feminine at ever turn.

But is this to say the works are sexist? It's the old Romper Stomper question again. Wright/Kantor provide no key to reading their work as a critique beyond the gargantan violent caricature of masculine and feminine which stalk the stage with such force as to thoroughly imbricate every aspect of the production. Perhaps this should be read as a sign of the absurd violence which such a commonplace social and cultural formation routinely causes, how it derives at least in part from Homer himself, and has been maintained in virtually every war story since.

Perhaps on the contrary it should be read as a sign of the unreformed sexism of the dramaturgical authors, as what I would myself join Croggon in construing as a misguided attempt to insist to a post-feminist world that these age old mythic divides of sex and gender are real and must be recognised.

I dont read this show in the 2nd fashion, prefering the 1st, but I concede that part of what is interesting --- and indeed challenging --- about this show is that Wright/Kantor are deliberately ambiguous about this, forcing us in the audience to face these issues, wrestle with them through the script, and engage in debates such as this online forum. To my mind, this would seem like a good thing --- precisely what theatre is about in fact, to present unpalatable ideas and make us talk about them.

It would seem to me that, after reading The Odyssey, Wright/Kantor determined early on that this is an unformed and unreformably sexist tale and that any depiction of this myth must seriously engage with this. There's no great myth of humanist transcendence here, as others have tried to read into this ancient frame. Rather Kantor/Wright insist this is a resolutely post-humanist and sexist narrative, an attempt to justify masculine heroism in the midst of some of the worst violence and sexual oppression one is likely to see. This seems to me like a timely message, but irrespective of how one reads this version of The Odyssey, it is absurdly reductive to read it only in terms of the homilies which are contained within the text.

In short, this is a far more complicated work that Croggon would suggest, one worth looking at in some detail before adopting a knee jerk reaction to. I for one applaud Wright and Kantor for another amazing and uncompromising theatrical event. I would however partly agree with Croggon that these Jungian themes are beginning to become something of a disconcertingly familiar element within their work. Id like to see their next production take a female lead character this time and see what directions this might lead them into.

In either case, here's to more dialogue!

Dr Jonathan Marshall
contributing editor, RealTime Australia
Research Fellow, WA Academy Performing Arts

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Jonathan

Thanks for your most stimulating and interesting response! I fear that you are largely correct that I listen to the text of any piece of theatre, and that it matters to me. Indeed, Wright's comment that you quote here - "if you want to delve into words, read a book" - strikes me as a rather weasel-like evasion of the whole question of utterance in theatre. If you're not going to use a text, fine: that is a perfectly legitimate approach. A friend in New York told me today of what sounds like an amazing theatre adaptation of the poems of Tadeusz Rosewicz - Scena Plastyczna KUL’s Odchodzi (Passing Away), now playing there - which has no words at all, but translates the experience of Rosewicz's extraordinary poetry in theatrical terms. It sounds right up my alley, and I'm only sad that I can't see it. Nor do I object to butoh, or dance, or other kinds of non-textual theatre... But if you are going to use text, then I think the language you use ought to attended to with the same care, attention, nay, inspiration, as any other aspect of the theatre.

This is my problem with Wright: I don't believe that he does this, and that quote only confirms it: he seems to approach writing and literature with a kind of defensive contempt. It doesn't do anything for my ear, part of the body with which I don't leave at home when I attend the theatre, and it cheapens the theatre itself. Now, if The Odyssey had, indeed, been done without language, a much more radical and, given Wright's attitude, perhaps more logical approach, my reaction might have been very different...



Anonymous said...

read first paragraph and last. spot on. will take the rest as given. bread and circus for the sophisticates. But then kantor did start the new job with the declaration "We need more sex!"