Not Like Beckett ~ theatre notes

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Not Like Beckett

Not Like Beckett by Michael Watts, directed by Michael Kantor. Design by Anna Cordingley, lighting by Niklas Pajanti, sound and composition by Darrin Verhagen. With Russell Dykstra. Beckett @The Malthouse Theatre until August 20.

It's hard to know how to describe Not Like Beckett. Should I take a cue from the title and do some negative theology, attempting to describe it by listing all the things it is not? As it says on the box, it is not at all like Beckett. It isn't like Ibsen or Chekhov or Miller, either.

However, it is, in a particular and very recognisable way, extremely Australian. The iconic Yellow Peril that dominates the set is only the most obvious signal that this is a work about us, from us and for us. But there is nothing earnest - and not a shred of the provincial - in this anarchic, rambunctious and liberatingly offensive piece of theatre.

Not Like Beckett embodies many of the things that I love about Australian culture: its irreverence, energy, intelligence, fearlessness and wit. There is no contradiction in the fact that it highlights our good points by exposing our bad: here, written large, is our racism, the apathy that segues into cruelty, the tinpot triumphalism of colonialisation, the sexual viciousness. But it's in all in the name of good, filthy fun.

Our lone protagonist is a rabbit (Russell Dykstra, sans bunny ears), who may or may not be Walter Walloon Beckett, disreputable scion of the famous Beckett clan of pioneer rabbits, famous travelling comedian and, scandalously, the lover of an indigenous bilby, Boo Boo.

As the play begins, he is caught in a rabbit trap, waiting for the trapper to come and turn him into a fur hat. (As this is theatre, his being caught in a trap doesn't stop Dykstra from scrambling all over Anna Cordingley's ingenious set). He alternately laments his fate, admires the beauty of the view and tell us the story of Walter Walloon's brilliant career.

An outcast at school, Walter Walloon discovers popularity with his signature joke, sticking a carrot up his bum. He then shocks his respectable settler family by entering showbusiness and, most egregiously of all, falling in love with Boo Boo, the last of her race, whom he liberates from a cage in a shop window by buying her.

Walter Walloon's love for Boo Boo - and somehow we believe that he really does love her - doesn't stop him from treating her with the most brutal misogyny. Walter Walloon is monstrous, and knows he is monstrous: hence the increasingly despairing denial of his Becketthood. As the metaphor of the rabbit trap makes plain, this is no simple victim/oppressor narrative: Walter Walloon may be a monster, but it is impossible, all the same, to wholly dislike him. After all, he is us.

And he's hilarious. The laughter he elicits is, to be sure, barbed and uncomfortable. Walter Walloon gives us a picture of colonialisation that is at once fanciful and brutally real. Its critique in fact goes deeper than might be possible in a realistic play, because it permits an irony and heartlessness that in a more literal rendering would be simply unbearable.

While it's a little difficult to disentangle Watts' writing from the full-on production Michael Kantor has given it, it's clear that Michael Watts writes tough theatrical prose that shifts effortlessly between vulgar comedy, mordant wit and delicate lyricism. If the play begins under the shadow of Samuel Beckett, with a sub-Beckettian soundscape of mutters and cries ("I am not like Beckett!") echoing around the hectically-revolving set, Samuel Beckett himself drops out of the picture fairly quickly.

The prologue, at least as staged, is effective; but the least successful part of the play is the first ten minutes, before Watts's writing shakes itself free of negative obesiance to this genius of modern theatre and finds its own identity. Calling so baldly on the ghost of Sam inevitably provokes comparison, and it has to be said that Watts' writing lacks Beckett's astringently mandarin intellect and severe poetry. Nor does it possess the profound understanding of visual art that Beckett brought to his creation of theatrical mise en scene.

Watts, in fact, best invokes Beckett's tradition when he stands as far away from him as possible. The authentic connection between Watts' and Beckett's writing is in their mutual exploitation of music hall and vaudeville. Watts invokes a rich Australian tradition of performance, drawing from the Tivoli and, in particular, Roy Rene's iconic character, Mo McCackie, who is recalled in Dykstra's own white-faced clowning.

The character of Walter Walloon Beckett also plugs into a robust modernist heritage of Australian theatre, and stands with Monk O'Neill, the Beckettian antihero of Jack Hibberd's Stretch of the Imagination, as one of the memorable creations of the Australian stage. Dykstra's astonishing performance - surely among the most sheerly outrageous and courageous I've seen - is, in fact, almost a potted history of Australian performance styles from Roy Rene on. There are shades here of the anarchy of 1980s comedy, such as Tick Where Applicable or Los Trios Ringbarkus, or the 1970s "larrikin" theatre of the Australian Performing Group. (And a touch of Sid Vicious, in case it's all getting too parochial).

Dykstra's performance has more than a little of Jacques Lecoq's bouffon, the grotesque clown to whom nothing is sacred, and whose extreme fooling cleanses the social body. Certainly, to get away with what Dykstra doles out to us requires a certain effrontery. He shamelessly enacts some of the most racist and misogynist jokes in the Australian repertoire. He charms us with the simplest of materials: shadowplay with his hands, or the dumbest products of the joke shop. He spends an inordinate amount of time eating a carrot. The slightest doubt, the smallest hesitation, and the entire performance would collapse into embarrassment; but fortunately, Dykstra owns the stage.

Michael Kantor's direction weaves all the disparate elements at work into a seamless whole and keeps the audience continuously surprised. Not least in the tapestry is Cordingley's set, designed around a model of Ron Robertson-Swann's public sculpture Vault (popularly known as "The Yellow Peril"). This creates its own cascade of associations: Vault was originally designed for the Melbourne City Square and, as is often the way with contemporary art in this culture, fell foul of conservative critics.

The sculpture lasted only six months before it was ignominiously dismantled and removed. It spent some time skulking in Batman Park before it was restored and reinstalled in Southbank, just down the road from the Malthouse Theatre, in 2002. Vault's fate is a tempting metaphor for the outright hostility often faced by contemporary art in Melbourne, and it's rather charming to see it celebrated so fondly in this production, in which it becomes a humpy, a stage, a mountain and even a flight of stairs.

The only thing you can be certain of in this show is that you don't know what is going to happen next (although you suspect that it will all end badly). If part of Kantor's project as artistic director of the Malthouse is to redefine what is meant by the phrase "Australian theatre", this production is a fascinating and powerful addition to the conversation.

Picture: Russell Dykstra in Not Like Beckett. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

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