Headlock / The Clean House ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Headlock / The Clean House

Headlock, text by David Denborough, directed by Kate Denborough. Set and lighting, Ben Cobham, Music by Byron Scullin. With Luke Hockley, Bryon Perry and Gerard von Dyck. Kage Physical Theatre @ The Malthouse, until June 3. The Clean House by Sarah Ruhl, directed by Kate Cherry. Designed by Christina Smith, lighting by Jon Buswell. With Julia Blake, Daniela Farinacci, Wendy Hughes, Pip Miller and Deidre Rubenstein. Melbourne Theatre Company, Fairfax Studio, Victorian Arts Centre until July 8.

Last week I had a good week of theatre. This was a fine thing because, gentle reader, your blogger has been under the gun lately: sometimes I am simply wearing too many hats, and no head, however swollen, can keep track of all of them. I keep rediscovering that each day has only 24 hours, and I have only one body with which to while those hours away...

And so, do forgive me for the brevity of these reports. But I must tell you about these shows. Firstly, on Thursday night I went to see Headlock.

Headlock was a surprise for me. I hadn't encountered Kage Physical Theatre's work, although I had heard Good Things: but the prospect of a show exploring masculinity and set in a boxing ring does rather call up a possibility of cliche: the aggressive male body at the wrong end of another aggressive male body in yet another incarnation of Raging Bull, yada yada yada...

It turned out to be much more interesting than that. It is in fact a work that explores male friendship in a way that seems honest, neither sentimental nor prurient. And finally it evokes an image of masculinity that is not so far from that of Giuseppe Ungaretti's First World War poem, Brothers:

What regiment are you

Speech trembling
in the night

Leaf just born

In the tortured air
the helpless revulsion
of man so close to


The impressionistic narrative follows the memories of a young man in prison, whose loneliness and vulnerability in the institutional desert is punctuated by his memories of his two best friends. The story is told through movement which segues effortlessly into pure dance, and a brilliant soundscape of music and ambient sound. There is very little text spoken, and much of it is inaudible; among other things, this is a journey through the inarticulate.

Perhaps what principally impressed me about the scenes enacted here is that, apart from the opening sequence, a car chase evoked by sound in the darkness, they are all utterly banal. The costumes are authentic Werribee, the games the young men play - arm wrestling, daring each other by a train line - not very far from childhood. The prisoner rings his mother or has a shower; he remembers eating fish and chips with his friends by the foreshore or going to a concert. There is no desire to sensationalise; rather an attempt to explore the significances of apparently trivial moments of living.

A tangible sense of the fragility of the male body grows through the performance. There are moments of sheer exuberance - the scene at the concert, for example, where a dancer jumps off the stage and unexpectedly bounces back up into the light from a hidden trampoline. But there is also a brooding sense of a world full of hard edges, in which one of the few refuges is the unspoken love between these men - not the love that dare not speak its name, but a perhaps even less speakable fraternal love - that can find its expression only in a dream.

Ben Cobham's design exploits the Merlyn Theatre about as well as any I have seen. The main action takes place in a boxing ring, around which seats are arranged intimately in a horse shoe, leaving at least half of the theatre empty. This permits vignettes to occur in the distance, on the actual stage, vanishing like ephemeral visions into blackness. It's visually thrilling, and the performances are at once athletic and expressive, forming a stylised language of movement from the ordinary gestures of young men.

I thought Headlock very beautiful. The crowd of VCE students who filled the theatre the night I was there stopped talking about ten minutes in, when they started watching it intently, and burst into whoops and cheers when it finished. Which I think says something too.

The following night, nursing an incipient cold, I went to see The Clean House at the MTC, and again had my expectations disrupted. Another American play, the misanthropic TN grumbled to herself; well, at least it has a good cast...

Actually, it's a great cast (Wendy Hughes, Julia Blake and Deidre Rubenstein on stage together? Come on!) and worth seeing for that alone. But the play too was unexpectedly charming: light comedy at its best. It concerns a career-driven doctor, Lane (Wendy Hughes) who employs a Brazilian maid to clean her house. Matilde (Daniela Farinacci) is recovering from a tragedy: she is mourning her parents, both great joke tellers. Her mother died laughing at one of her father's jokes, and her father died shortly afterwards.

Now she has come to North America to earn her living and to find the best joke in the world. She doesn't like housework; it makes her sad. So Lane's sister Virginia (Deidre Rubenstein), the image of the repressed housewife itching to tidy up the world, offers to clean up for the maid. Meanwhile, Lane's husband, also a doctor, leaves her: he falls passionately in love with Ana (Julia Blake), an older woman whose breast he has just removed in surgery.

Predictably enough, the sterile white set with which the show opens doesn't remain sterile for long, as life and death flood the house and the lives of these women with their anarchies. As in a good farce, Sarah Ruhl's play follows its own impeccable logic, which is a parallel logic to that of the "real world": a logic, one might say, of the heart rather than the mind. There's a subtext of grief and love leavened with a black humour that staves off mawkishness. I wouldn't call it magic realism, a phrase which my fellow critics have fallen on with cries of relief; I'd call it theatre.

In the capable hands of the cast, The Clean House plays delightfully: all of them are wonderful comic actors and deftly make the most of their roles. The production is also notable for Christina Smith's stunningly elegant design, which, like the writing, playfully transcends the naturalistic conventions of this theatre. It's the best design I have seen in the Fairfax Studio, which is an awkward space at the best of times. Not too demanding, but not brainless entertainment either. As they say, a good night out.

Photo: Headlock at the Malthouse. Picture: Jeff Busby.

Ungaretti translation by Daniel Keene.

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