A View of Concrete ~ theatre notes

Friday, May 05, 2006

A View of Concrete

A View of Concrete by Gareth Ellis, directed by Lauren Taylor. Design by Adam Gardnir, lighting Richard Vabre, composer Tom Spender, sound design by David Franzke. With Peter Houghton, Richard Pyros, Alexandra Schepisi and Lauren Urquhart. The Tower @ The Malthouse, until May 21.

"Without alienation," Arthur Miller said famously, "there can be no politics". But what if alienation is all there is? What politics can happen then? A View of Concrete suggests the only possiblity is narcissistic self-destruction.

Gareth Ellis' award-winning play is a far cry from Miller's rational liberalism. His characters are trapped in a world of simulacra, Baudrillard's "desert of the real", where the image precedes reality and itself becomes murderous. The natural world is a nostalgic dream: there is nothing beyond the man-made. And this reality is psychotic.

Ellis's hallucinatory world is given feverish life in Lauren Taylor's fast-paced, high-octane production. I suspect I might not have enjoyed the play half so much without Taylor's uncompromising treatment; she gives the text a heightened edge that makes the most of its sinister vaudevillean comedy and pushes open its anarchic possibilities.

A View of Concrete is about four young people, incapable of communicating for all their almost aphasic ability to speak, who retreat into darker and darker fantasies until they cannot but wreak them on each other. James (Richard Pyros) is addicted to television, obsessively watching the news at the expense of his relationship with Jacquie (Lauren Urquhart); Jacquie herself is too afraid to admit that the inner violence she senses in James sparks her masochistic fantasies.

Jacquie's friend Billy (Alexandra Schepisi) dreams of becoming a fairy, of making herself smaller and smaller until she can ultimately disappear, but violently rejects the label "anorexic". Neil (Peter Houghton) deals out escape with the drugs he sells. He is a compulsive reader who refuses to finish any books he reads (F. Scott Fitzgerald, Lewis Carroll, Nietzsche) and keeps himself in careful ignorance of their titles and authors - if he finds out, he throws the book in the bin. He is the ultimate in free-floating, contextless consumption of knowledge.

None of these characters is stupid. Each is perfectly capable of seeing the delusions of the others, but utterly unable to persuade others that they are mistaken, or of perceiving their own self deceptions. So while the women mock James' increasing obsession with his next door neighbour, whom he is convinced is a terrorist, Jacquie can't shake Billy's faith that fairies live in the jacaranda tree. None of them sees the real story which is occurring before their eyes: a young girl is being brutalised by drugs, for which crime a terrible revenge will be enacted.

But these abberent behaviours, Ellis suggests, are all merely symptoms of a reality that is fatally sick. In a reversal of agency, the domestic animals are committing suicide: a cat hangs itself, a pigeon flies deliberately into a window. This is a post Twin Towers world, says Ellis in his program note, that is not "safe", "where the definition of 'humanity' can only be found in the dictionary...it is an exact replica of our world".

Ellis's nihilism is perhaps a little easy: the callousness he portrays is in some ways no more than the egocentric cruelty of small children. And certainly this play isn't quite as radical as it thinks it is. Fernando Arrabal or Heathcote Williams (especially Williams' immortally weird AC/DC) go much further on all counts - in visceral extremities of violence, political anarchy or hallucinatory realities. But Ellis has an ear for tough dialogue that is accurate and bleakly comic, especially for his male characters, and a real lyrical gift. He is certainly an imagination to watch.

This incubation of emerging talent is possibly the most important aspect of the new Malthouse, which is drawing strongly in its programming on Melbourne's vital but under-resourced independent scene. It's great to see what Lauren Taylor can do with a budget of more than two dollars. Adam Gardnir's set runs the length of the Tower Theatre, with seating two deep on three sides, and is dominated by a tree-like chandelier of fluorescent lights that is spookily lovely. Richard Vabre's lighting score is sharp and precise, allowing the instant shifts of realities and locations the direction demands.

The play goes like a train, rushing headlong to its desolate conclusion. Taylor and her excellent cast create an almost operatic interpretation, which never slackens in intensity but remains nuanced, shifting deftly from humour to surrealness to moments of sheer anarchy which are at once comic and frightening. The performances are stylised, sometimes even neurasthenic in the artifice of their gestures, and carry off the conceit with complete physical conviction.

Each actor finds a physical correlation for the individual tics of his or her neurosis. Lauren Urquhart's brittle portrayal of Jacquie is an increasingly hysteric constellation of truncated gestures. It gives her a dark, neurotic comic quality heightened by the artifice of her delivery: at times she almost sings her text. Richard Pyros slides imperceptively from suspicion to violent, drug-fuelled paranoia, falling apart in front of our eyes.

Peter Houghton's deadpan delivery almost makes him seem like the only point of sanity ("I'm a professional," he boasts at one point, speaking about his dealing: like all organised crime, he is the dark face of capitalism) but the disconnections in his performance betray that he is as dysfunctionally unselfaware as the others. Alexandra Schepisi portrays Billy's obsessive desire to shrink with such intensity that I swear that she visibly loses weight during the two hours of the play.

The extremities of the performances as they evolve through the evening become ever more compellingly believable. It makes visceral, exciting theatre, and certainly gives the lie to those who claim that new Australian plays are in the doldrums. If this is a doldrum, it's been getting bad press.

Picture: Richard Pyros, Lauren Uquhart and Peter Houghton in A View of Concrete


Anonymous said...

hi alison,

i enjoyed yr post on View of Concrete.

The stylised delivery of the dialogue, most evident perhaps in Urquhart's character, Jacquie, did invest the play with an 'edge', and though i must confess that its brittleness began to annoy me a little, the strangeness of delivery provided a disturbing contrast to the violent-realism of the conclusion(particularly Neils).

as a writer, it's these contrasts/justapositions that interest me.

the danger, i guess, is that the strangeness might fall short of 'building character' and leave the audience distanced. I wasn't sure Houghton's deadpan-style really fit for me. I found myself questioning it as well as laughing/enjoying it at the same time.

But this is a small thing... Ellis has a wonderful lyric sense, not to mention his symbolism... and Taylor has delivered a powerful piece of theatre. It's got me thinking...

nathan curnow

Abe Pogos said...

Hi Alison,

I agree with you when you say Ellis "is certainly an imagination to watch". I think his play is one of the best new Aussie plays I've seen in a while. I've also heard it's his first play in which case it's a remarkable debut.

But I enjoyed it despite Lauren Taylor's production which aside from some occasional moments of (relative) stillness, mostly strangled the life out of the play.

While the production got gradually more frenetic, emotionally it stayed in the one spot.

It was like sitting in a racing car that was revving it's engine more and more loudly but not actually taking us anywhere.

At its worst the experience was like hearing fingernails scratching on a blackboard.

Anyway, I commend The Malthouse for putting it on and I hope to see more of Ellis' work in future.

M Chambers said...

Hi Alison, this is a rant, bear with me...

Gareth is a colleague of mine and a friend so I have had an incidental relationship with the evolution of this play and I must say that this version of it confuses me.

In 2002 when this play first started to take shape in the form of monologues, a critical feature (as Gareth notes in the program for this production) was that the thoughts and behavioural schisms inhabiting it were amplified not caused by drug use, a primary muscle in this drama. Drug use as a theatrical device is a risky one anyway because it suggests a 'non-reality' that is very readily located by contemporary audiences. The proliferation of drug states as dramatic accelerants in writing and performance has educated a generation of theatre goers in a way that doesn't help "A View of Concrete." Necessarily when a contemporary audience sniffs the drug thing, it will trigger an automatic frame of reference for the drama. I think Gareth’s being more devisive than this. It was important that this production subvert a literal reading of the drug content in order to drive home the things Gareth is actually trying to say. I think it does a patchy job for a few reasons.

Often I felt (though not always) that investment in the detail of the writing was substituted for reaching a recognisable drug state. It satirized it. There is a hugely non-trivial discussion, for example, that runs through this play to do with eternity and the universe and existence that is depleted in this show because it is often delivered "speed acting" style. Intensity is often replaced in this way by hysteria, which isn't dramatic, it's just noisy (I really like the above reference to a revving car motor).

Although there is a style to this production which supports some elements of "view’s" take on life, it is general none the less and often singularly embraces concrete seeming elements (right down to sort of concrete coloured clothing) and trivialises the really rather beautiful counter point that Gareth has written between a "concrete" world and flesh and blood human beings. I'm missing the flesh and blood bit in this show. Heart is important to this play. Warmth is important; it is the context for the synthetic elements like the drugs, like the concrete. Also, the look of this show gives us an unflinchingly literal reading of its themes. An alienating interpretation of themes dealing with alienation leaves you with nothing.

Set a precedent of recognisable humanity and this play can be very moving. I hope that this production sets a precedent for further exploration of the ideas Gareth deals with in "View of Concrete" and a journey back to the humanity from which I think it was conceived.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi M Chambers

Thanks very much for your post. You have the jump on me, clearly being much more familiar with the play; I have seen it once and haven't read the text. However, I do listen hard to words in theatre, and I certainly took the drug references as metaphorical as much as literal.

Thinking back over my memory of the play in the light of your remarks, I think I'd still stick with my evaluation of Gareth's work: it's a good play by a talented young writer, which means - like all of us - that he has much to learn. For my part, the philosophical/poetic reflections were definitely the weaker parts of the writing. I was particularly impressed by the dialogue between the men.

As for the production: I think (put it down to taste) that a heightening of artifice can in fact heighten the humanity of a work, its flesh-and-bloodness, if you like. I can see what you mean by the possibility of hysteria replacing intensity - it's certainly a danger of this kind of approach - but it didn't strike me like that the night I saw it.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed the write up but not the play. I found it to be highly theatrical with no real message. I found it all in all disappointing. It had so much potential to reach issues that truly affect us all however it failed.