Ghost writer ~ theatre notes

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Ghost writer

If you haven't caught up with it, allow me to point you to a fantastic post (really, an essay) among the responses to my review of Ross Mueller's The Ghost Writer, recently on at the MTC. Anon, heretofore known as Ghost, raises a thorny tangle of questions which your faithful blogger didn't, er, have the guts to raise herself, although I was also disturbed by the same questions. In particular, Ms/Mr Ghost addresses the elephant in the bedroom: Why is Brihanna (Margaret Harvey - who also gives the best performance in the play) Aboriginal? The length of Ms/Mr Ghost's post, which is I think a most acute discussion of the implications of this casting, suggests why I felt unable to ask this question myself - I just didn't know how to approach it without either crudely reducing the problem and sounding - um - racist, or on the other hand writing a thesis. (Yes, yes, I know, pathetic). As our own Ghost says:

Even if it was a simple as Margaret being the best actor for the role - I think we still have to consider the implications of casting, particularly in this story, which is so loaded and fraught with social complexities and challenges that I’d argue a “colour-blind” casting would be impossible. Can I be provocative, and dare to make the suggestion, that perhaps, it was easier for this MTC production to give an illiterate -Woodstocks - at- 10am-Horizon-smoking-woman-unable-to care-for-or-save-her-child, an Aboriginal identity? Could this have been thought somehow more audience-acceptable, rather than challenging the white, educated, urban, wealthy professional (WEUWP) audiences about the same traits in white culture? Why deliberately perpetuate such unhelpful negative stereotypes of Aboriginal culture, when these of Brihanna’s defining character traits, are actually, especially when seen in the Leskie case, products of class? Instead of offering a more benign symbol of black/white relations (which is what I suspect Mueller intended), The Ghost Writer feels to me to be quite sinister.

It's interesting, thoughtful and fair commentary which also addresses troubling gender questions - go read it in full here. Any further comments, especially from those who saw or were part of the production, are very welcome.


Anonymous said...

Hi Alison - It’s Ghost here (sorry about my lack of nom de plume earlier – as I said I’m new to this game). Well I’ve been waiting and watching for well over a week now, and all I’m left with is an awful lot of curiousity, and (well, yes) disappointment. Not because I’m personally miffed that only one poster chose to enter into a discussion I wanted to raise (and maybe was the only reader to actually get through my rather long (sorry) essay-post) – but because I believe really passionately that there are levels of engagement and discussion that should be happening about our practice and it’s relationship to our world, and well, it hasn’t seemed to happen here. Makes me wonder about the issues and questions that people are responding to, and those that they’re not, and why? What is it that we really care about? Mmmmm …. How does one interpret silence?


Alison Croggon said...

Hi Ghost - I never know what silence means. But according to my stats, quite a lot of people were looking at that page, so it's probably fair to say that it was read by a number of people.

I started this blog being used to poets, who will talk, at length, and often noisily, (and sometimes to the point of wanting to yell at them to shut up) about anything. It was at least a year before anyone began to comment! (I had in fact given up on it). In this instance, I'd speculate that people are still feeling their way into discussion, and with anyone as difficult and as open to misinterpretation and potentially fissile as your observations, there's going to be a reluctance to stick one's neck out. Perhaps. It could be of course simply that people are not interested, and if so, I share your disappointment...

our man in berlin said...

First "Anon 1", I wouldn't take the lack of response personally, it probably has something to do with the very slim Venn Diagram of MTC audience and bloggers. For my part, I caught the show late and it took a friend to remind me to come back and look at this comment. Hope you are still checking for responses!

I will keep this short and hope/trust it doesn't therefore read as dismissive of a very complex argument. I admire your attempt to navigate this production, consciously unpicking your own response to it in our "post-ideological" context. There is much I agree with and the perils of addressing ANY pressing issue in the context of the comfort of the Arts Centre, let alone the ideological frame of the "MTC Product" are many. Your central concern, however, doesn't have legs, for me.

The arguments that you bring up and the "colour-blind" casting that Alison refers to, are extremely serious issues. I would agree with both of you on most days of the week: Margaret Harvey ought to have played some of the really meaty canonical roles by now and it is an indictment on our theatres and our society that she hasn't.

But I fear that this production, this role, is the wrong turf for this argument. The issue is complex but my question is simple: what would have happened if there was a white woman in the role? At this moment in time, we would have focussed our energies entirely on that role, the Jaidyn Leskie parallels would have been TOO loud, Mueller would have written a play "about" a contemporary issue and as much as a writer wants to be contemporary, we have a problem in this country seeing past that to a play that might have some endurance. This is the "Alan Jones" matrix of meaning that I think the producers of this work were avoiding, and rightly so.

Now, whether that is a successful strategy or not is another thing entirely. Alison's review clearly has it that the contemporary references and the poetic drive are not integrated but this specific choice seems to indicate that the creative team were conscious of just that problem.

The reference to "white trash" was, I believe, deliberately left intact, un-integrated, in order to alert us to the choice.

This line does not, cannot, lead us to the odd assumption (anon 2) that Harvey is playing a white woman. Rather, by not fitting, this line allows us to hear the possibility of another play at another time.

In the meanwhile, the fact that Harvey's performance is the strongest thing on stage carries far more (positive) meta-theatrical weight.

I'd like to keep it to that, and see if this floats any boats for you but can't resist adding that the points you make about the Claudia figure (let me second Alison's appreciation of your image of the audience applauding their own deaths) are, I find, the more potent. I was equally fascinated at the "disconnect" and this was heightened by the physical transformation that Belinda McClory wrought on herself in the cause of that extreme choice in a a padded world...but we can talk about that once we've dealt with the race issue *sad grimace*

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Daniel - thanks for that very thoughtful and interesting comment. I think that you're right about the meta-theatrical weight of Harvey's performance; I also, on reflection, think it's a bit of a double bind. Which is to say, no matter how thoughtfully it's placed, in the MTC context that particular casting is going to end up in the fall-back position of confirming, rather than questioning, assumptions about race and class. And as I said earlier, the casting actually made the gender faultlines more troubling for me.

It reminds me of a dilemma I crashed into a few years ago, while I was in the midst of writing heavily literary poems about childbirth in an attempt to bring that kind of female experience into, if you like, the permissible realm of the poetic, and to drag it out of the easily dismissed (as sentimental/"personal"/etc) confessional mode, with everything that implied for me about the intellectual delegitimisation of women and the female. You can imagine my feelings when I was once introduced at a reading as "a poet of love and motherhood". I felt that I was put right back in my box, and back to square one. There's a snapback that can occur with work that attempts to explore certain issues if it can be too easily assimilated into the assumptions that it's attempting to question. The work is somehow neutralised and ends up simply confirming everything it wants to challenge. (You can argue this is the inevitable end of any work of art, because if it's seen it enters the culture machine and will be neutralised anyway, vide Shakespeare or Wordsworth or any canonical artist). Whether the artist is responsible for that is a moot point; I'm not sure, in the end, that artists can be taken to task for being misunderstood or badly read. All the same, a work of art can with varying degrees of alertness negotiate the minefields of the culture it inhabits. Still haven't worked that one out.

our man in berlin said...

Love the territory, if it’s any help: I believe that the really interesting engagements with Shakespeare are from theatre-makers that have trouble accessing his works from a position of cultural certainty. In these cases, "Shakespeare" survives through the bits that are impossible to assimilate. The English, with their sense of ownership have no trouble keeping Shakespeare on the stage but have significantly more trouble keeping him alive.

Anonymous said...

Hi Alison and Daniel

Sorry its taken me a bit of a while to get back to this … thanks indeed for your thoughts and comments Daniel (Glad you’re inhabiting the Venn Diagram). It’s good to continue to be challenged about this stuff. I think there is a real double-bind here, as you point out Alison. In that no matter with whatever intentions Margaret’s excellent work was placed, within this play, it was the wrong play (I have to disagree with you here, Daniel) and the wrong role to do this. Precisely because of the fall-back confirmation of race and class that you mention Alison.

While I appreciate your comments Daniel, I’m sorry that I have to disagree about Margaret’s casting being a successful way of trying to mask the real-life source of the drama. I just don’t buy that Mueller made us think that it wasn’t really Bilynda and Jaidyn’s story we were seeing, albeit slightly changed. Like you, I was strongly aware of this real effort at masking the Leskie story, the child’s death (as my original rave went on (and on) about bodies in shrouds and ghosts etc). And it was such a conscious effort in the re-framing of the story of white regional underclass – re-told, ghosted from the urban professionals’ point of view – bookended by monologues from Claudia and her father. Which is my point about the inappropriate appropriation and twisting of a tale from it’s source to make it play less threateningly for the MTC audience. Now, if Ross’s real point was about this appropriation, if he and Julian had consciously and cleverly been exposing this insidious thing that the dominant culture does to maintain its status quo – then it would have been a piece of theatre that I would have found much much more interesting. But if that was their intent (which part of me really really hopes it was), unfortunately I think it failed – there was just not enough self-awareness of its own project to convince me this is what it was doing. Ironically, and how interestingly does language serve me here, if this is what they’d hoped to do, well, it needed to be an awful lot blacker to succeed.


Anonymous said...

Hi all,

Some extremely interesting and insightful comments – I must say I was a bit confused and troubled as to what this play was actually saying, but couldn’t put my finger on why. I thought much of it was beautifully written, and the performances superb, but I walked out feeling some disquiet. I'm still not quite sure what I think of it. Ghost, in particular, however has articulated what may well have also provoked my reservations about it.

At the risk of being accused of pedantic (which I am, I admit!), on to the nitpick. I apologise in advance if this is not an appropriate place to post this comment - it seems a bit at odds with the foregoing discussion to raise what in the scheme of things might be a minor issue. However.

One of my pet hates – which also applies to fiction, as well as theatre and film – is where it’s obvious that a writer does not know the area he or she is writing about, and hasn’t bothered to do some basic research. I’m referring to the depiction of Simon West as the prosecutor of the now deceased boyfriend. As a criminal lawyer, I found myself cringing at the inaccuracies, as was one of my companions who also used to practise as a solicitor. For instance: it’s “the Office of Public Prosecutions” not “the Department of the Public Prosecutor.” The notion of Spring Street putting pressure on the DPP to secure a conviction because an election’s coming up, to someone who knows the system seemed bizarre – the overriding obligation on the prosecution is to ensure a fair trial. This idea seemed to be more relevant to an American setting, where as I understand it, District Attorneys are elected and therefore conviction rates might play some part in an election. But not in this state. Also even in the most efficient jurisdiction, a month between charging someone and commencing the trial just does not happen. I thought Simon West could have been written as the investigating homicide detective who was placed under pressure to charge, despite misgivings as to the state of the evidence – that I can see happening.

All this could have been found out by means of a Google search and perhaps a couple of phone calls. Yes, it’s permissible – and sometimes, for the sake of the story, essential – for a writer to take a bit of dramatic licence. However, where the plot will not suffer by getting it right, it seems strange that one wouldn’t put some effort into doing so. I would be interested in other perspectives on this.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Cassandra

Your remarks are very welcome. In fact, I had similar problems - not with the legal aspect of it, though the politics were rather naff, but with the ghost writer herself. All that going on about the "truth" and those cliches about getting "involved" with the "story" etc - also, now you mention it, very American, and as a former journalist and occasional hack writer myself, I have never heard anyone speak like that. And the literary gossip was, well, squirmy stuff. Yes, of course fictional representations must have the freedom to imagine what they like, but whether that imagining is successful - ie, compelling - is about a lot of things, including the aesthetic approach. But that brings me to back to my original point, which was that - from my pov - it didn't seem to be clear what it was. Writers are often unclear about what they are "trying to say" (quite rightly believing that, as someone famous once said, if you want to send a message, use Western Union) but they do, I believe, have to be very clear about their formal decisions.

Paul Martin said...

Ghost/Alison, I'm the kinda guy in a social setting who will sit there for some time and maybe not say a word, taking the conversation of others in and really only speaking up when I think I have something to contribute. I find the same thing here. Theatre Notes is an interesting hangout where interesting discussions take place. I don't know much about theatre per se, so I read more than I contribute.

Alison, you mentioned to me that year without apparent interest and I appreciated that encouragement. Shortly after you said that there was an increase in interest in my blog that continues to grow. And while it seems to fluctuate in terms of comments left, the stats I see indicate there's a lot of interest from people who don't leave comments.

Maybe people don't feel so inclined to comment if previous posters have already pretty much said it all. I'm sure that's a factor.