The Trial of SalomeFestival polemicsPigs in New YorkAlison's Marvellous Adventure ~ theatre notes

Sunday, July 30, 2006

The Trial of Salome

The Trial of Salome, adapted and directed by Bob Pavlich. Designed by Romanie Harper, lighting by Gwendolyna Holmberg-Gilchrist. With T'mara Buckmaster, Emma Goldsworthy, Adrian Mulraney, David Adamson, Alex Pinder and Josh Ryan. La Mama @ the Carlton Courthouse, until August 5.

Oscar Wilde's enduring popularity is due, in part, to the fact that he is a figure of unsettling modernity: the fin de si├Ęcle decor of his writings, which otherwise might date him as badly as Swinburne, is underlaid by a tough, unsparing intelligence. This is as true of his less well-known writing as it is of the plays which established him as the greatest comic playwright since his fellow Irishman, Sheridan.

The fairy tales in the collection The House of Pomegranates ("intended," said Wilde, "neither for the British child nor the British public") rank high in his achievement: they are not only enchanting, beautifully wrought stories, but among his most serious meditations on (for example) the relationship between art and feeling, or the place of love in religion, or the ethics of public authority. And they also demonstrate his capacity - more evident in his prose, in fact, than in his poetry - for sustaining extremes of poetic language.

Of Wilde's plays, the closest in both sensibility and diction to his fairy tales is Salome. Perhaps the strangest of Wilde's plays, this one-acter retells the Biblical story of Salome, step-daughter of the tetrarch Herod Antipas, who requests the head of Jokaanan (John the Baptist) on a silver platter as her reward for dancing the Dance of the Seven Veils.

Originally written in French, its English premiere was cancelled when the Lord Chamberlain refused it a license, deeming it illegal to represent Biblical characters on stage. This ban held until 1931, but it did not stop private performances of the play, including one that sparked a 1918 trial for criminal libel which bore startling similarities to the trial that brought about Wilde's own downfall.

The suit was brought against Noel Pemberton Billing, the properietor of a right wing journal called The Vigilante, by the actress Maud Allen, who, in an attack on a production of Salome in which she performed the title role, was accused of being a member of the "Cult of the Clitoris" - a coded accusation of homosexuality.

For The Trial of Salome, director Bob Pavlich has cut together original transcripts from the trial with adapted excerpts from Wilde's play. Aside from Salome (T'mara Buckmaster), all the cast plays double roles - Herod (Adrian Mulraney) is also the Judge, Emma Goldsworthy is Herodias and Maud Allen, and so on.

It's an intriguing concept which, among other things, demonstrates with eye-popping clarity the close relationship between misogyny and homophobia. In Billing's eyes, a woman's uncontrolled sexuality is as much a threat to the clean-living heterosexual male as is the disease of homosexuality. The clitoris, we learn, is a mysterious organ known only inside medical journals and to perverts; in the grip of its influence, a woman might "be driven to an elephant".

If it hadn't actually happened, it would be hilarious. Sadly, as religious fundamentalism ensures that homophobia and misogyny creep into the core of public life, especially in the US, this is rather more than a period piece. As in Sylvere Lotringer's blackly funny Overexposed: Treating Sexual Perversion in America, a series of interviews with psychologists "treating" sexual criminals, it becomes increasingly clear that the real perversities exist in the fantasies projected by those who claim to be preserving the moral health of the nation.

Pavlich has created a fine piece of dramaturgy, theatrically cutting between the two realities in ways that are neither unsubtle nor predictable. The excerpts from Salome - a drama that is, in fact, about a woman savagely protecting her chasteness from the lust projected onto her by nearly every man she encounters - become an ironic counter-argument.

Perhaps what was most troubling to the censors was the beauty of Wilde's language (described during the trial as a certain sign of the sodomite). This beauty is felt as a moral affront; and in fact, the authorities were quite correct to feel this. In Wilde's moral universe, sensuous beauty was a radical imperative, a manifestation of love - even divine love - that struck profoundly at the heart of political and moral authority. For example, in The Fisherman and his Soul, the Priest, having cursed the lovers whose profane corpses have been cast on the beach, prepares to preach a sermon of fire and brimstone:

"He began to speak to the people, desiring to speak to them of the wrath of God. But the beauty of the white flowers troubled him, and their odour was sweet in his nostrils, and there came another word into his lips, and he spake not of the wrath of God, but of the God whose name is Love. And why he so spake, he knew not..."

The passions induced by Salome's beauty are much darker. For Salome, what matters is her chasteness, her moon-like integrity, which are constantly assailed by the lusts she unwittingly inspires in men, including in her stepfather Herod. Her revenge is deadly, and most deadly against the one man who inspires in her an answering desire, only to spurn her, Jokanaan.

Salome knowingly uses the lust she inspires to gain her own ends, finally acceding to Herod's impassioned requests that she dance for him, and then refusing all the riches he can offer her in favour of Jokanaan's head. "There are not dead men enough!" she says, as she orders soldiers to bring it to her.

When Herod witnesses the reality of Salome's desire, he is horrified, calling her "monstrous", and orders her death. But it's clear that her desire has been made monstrous by its constant erasure. She is only ever the object of desire, her own wants ignored by the men who, blinded by their lust, fail to perceive her at all. In this way they are no different from Jokanaan, who will not even look at her.

Stephen Berkoff brought his National Theatre production of Salome here several years ago. Although widely disparaged by Melbourne critics, it left me open-mouthed: aside from featuring one of the most sheerly beautiful designs I have ever seen, the company's performances of Wilde's Solomonic language was revelatory, showing me how powerful poetic language can be on stage, if uttered with complete physical and emotional conviction.

Unlike Berkoff's production, this co-op show hasn't the resources to meet the ambitions of this most interesting script. Aside from Mulraney and Goldsworthy, both fine, experienced actors, the cast has real trouble coming to grips with the extremes of Wilde's lyrical theatricality. For the most part (though this is also a function of the direction) they seem static in space, physically ungrounded, uncertain how to pitch either the poetry or the comedy.

And puzzlingly, given the intelligence of Pavlich's script, his direction seems to be misconceived, most grievously in Buckmaster's portrayal of Salome as a petulant, seductive teenager. There is no sense of the wounded pride which erupts so murderously in the play's climactic scene: the performance is more Paris Hilton denied a new pair of shoes than barbarian princess struck by the curse of Cupid's arrow. The decision to spread the part of Jokanaan between all the male cast members on the one hand emphasises their common blindness but, on the other, robs Jokanaan of his singularity and, perhaps most crucially, of his physical presence.

Despite my reservations, The Trial of Salome is worth seeing for the sheer interest of the script, which deserves a better-resourced production, and for its admirable ambition.

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Saturday, July 29, 2006

Festival polemics

My response to the Craven/Usher attacks on MIAF runs in the The Age today - online here.

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Friday, July 28, 2006

Pigs in New York

Good to have news of local pigs kicking up their heels in New York. The inimitable George Hunka of Superfluities reports on Lally Katz, Chris Kohn and the rest of the Stuck Pigs Squealing gang, who this week did a showing of a work in progress at Richard Foreman's legendary Ontological-Hysteric Theatre.

Clearly George was charmed. But us Melburnians, we're charming, no?

This preview was the result of a collaboration with US writer Mac Wellman and other American artists, and the plan is to return to New York next year with the finished production. Meantime as a sidenote, I see that the Malthouse is producing a Richard Foreman play - Now That Communism is Dead My Life Feels Empty, directed by composer Max Lyandvert - as part of its most interesting upcoming spring season.

Addendum: Chris Kohn has posted in the comments a link to the Stuck Pigs' rehearsal blog, for those curious about what they've been doing over there...

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Monday, July 24, 2006

Alison's Marvellous Adventure

This one's for my friend Dan, who told me that he's really sick of reading that last "Gadding About" post. Yes, impatient readers, I flew back in on Friday, and have been acclimatising myself over the past few days to being back in Melbourne. This has been rather a mixed pleasure.

On the one hand, I love this place, even in winter. My trips to the UK are marked by the wistful and resigned pursuit of a decent coffee that doesn't taste like soap from Starbucks. The English just don't do coffee. (For reference, the Bar Italia in Soho does a Melbourne-quality latte - sheer bliss - shown to me, not surprisingly, by a fellow Melburnian...) I miss the cafes and the food culture here. I miss the bay. I even miss my family, sentimentalist that I am. While I was away, the bombs went off in the Mumbai trains and Israel started bombing Lebanon, and the world spun a little more darkly on its axis. Times when one wants to be home.

But oh, I had a good time. The Soundeye Festival is an attentive, listening, intelligent space with maybe the best audience for poetry I have ever read to. This year there were other pleasures as well - a contemporary Flamenco dancer declaiming Lorca, for example, on the Cabaret Night, where scores of eager young people materialised from somewhere to see poets with video and music, poets with violins, installation pieces and bands playing gypsy folk from Eastern Europe... And then I hung out in London (and, yes, Harrods) which was alive with summer and perspiring Londoners. I went to the Tate and discovered that Cy Twombly is a genius. I met with some dear friends.

I saw a magical production of Ovid's Metamorphoses by the London Bubble Company in a park by Highgate Cemetary, which reminded me of the sheer power of poetic language: on the one hand, a totally contemporary, ironically witty take on Ovid's myths; on the other, absolutely true to the sheer enchantment of the poetry. Children paid spellbound attention for two hours as the actors told of the creation of the world, of Orpheus and nymphs and Apollo's passion for Daphne, who became a laurel... Unlike many Australian takes on classic literature, there was no feeling of embarrassment at the beauty of the language: and the unabashed beauty was not incompatible with sheer fun, even slapstick. I loved it.

I missed, to my sorrow, Michael Gambon in Atom Egoyan's adaptation of Beckett's Eh, Joe. I just couldn't get there. I so wish I could have stayed longer. But I did get to the Bloomsbury launch of Gavin Selerie's extraordinary tome, Le Fanu's Ghost. It was so crowded with London poetry types that they had to be crowbarred out of the room. The book itself is a beautifully produced 350 pages, with graphics by Alan Halsey. As Marina Warner says, in an unusually accurate blurb on the back cover, the book is "oral, brash, sparky, and yet grounded in a deep knowledge and love of the highest poetic tradition...and will give great pleasure to readers". Indeed. More details - this is a must-have book for anyone interested in contemporary poetry - at Five Seasons Press's website.

So it's a little desolating to return to the belljar of Official Australian Culture. Is there anywhere else in the world where the arts are so roundly and openly despised by mainstream outlets? Catching up on my return, two things caught my eye: the on-going campaign in the Age to discredit and belittle Kristy Edmunds' programming for the Melbourne International Festival of the Arts (Robin Usher and the always reliably pompous pseud Peter Craven), with some side-swipes, while they're at it, at the "fringey" atmosphere now prevailing at the Malthouse. The bloggers, bless us all, have been onto it - Ben Ellis and Vitriolics Anonymous dish out some richly deserved scorn.

I can't even begin to parse the bullshit assumptions that underlie these articles. By what cultural measure is Robert Wilson a "fringe" artist? How can Ariane Mnouchkine be remotely described as making worthy theatrical docudramas? Are these "arts commentators" aware of the solid achievements of the Australian artists they routinely belittle? Don't these people have eyes? Didn't they notice how many ordinary Melburnians went to these shows, both local and international, and that many of the shows were, gasp, booked out? Didn't they notice how the city felt briefly like a metropolis, rather than a parochial country town? Wherefore this false dichotomy between Bach, the avant garde of his day, and contemporary innovative art? My dears, any healthy culture has both of them.

And then I saw how the Australian had stung the literati by sending out a chapter of a Patrick White novel. Kerryn Goldsworthy sums up all the tacky dimensions of this affair very well on her own blog:

I can't work out which is the worst:

(a) the bad faith of the entrapment, the smugness of its aftermath, and the shabby (and incoherent, as Jeff Sparrow points out in this excellent piece) reactionary agenda behind the exercise,

(b) the failure of the agents and publishers' readers who rejected the chapter to recognise either the actual novel or, at the very least, White's unique, highly spottable style, and the incontrovertible evidence it provides that people getting jobs in Australian publishing houses have clearly not seen fit to make it their business to read a little Australian writing, or

(c) the unambiguously, unashamedly and exclusively commercial agenda behind some of the rejections.

I could just cry.
Which reminds me that Patrick White, our sole Nobel Laureate, is out of print in Australia. You can buy him in bookshops overseas, but not in his native land. Consequently, he is scarcely read: the biography by David Marr is much more widely read than any of his work, and I suppose it's easy to maintain the fiction that White is elitist and inaccessible if he is unavailable to read (he is neither of those things, just a masterly, sensual, intelligent storyteller).

It's as if the English decided not to read or publish Shakespeare. It makes no sense at all. And like Kerryn, I could just cry.

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