Review: The Perjured City ~ theatre notes

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Review: The Perjured City

The Perjured City, Or The Awakening of the Furies, by Hélène Cixous, directed by Kirsten von Bibra. Design by Jeminah Reidy, costumes by Jessica Daley, lighting by Whitney McNamara, puppet design Lachlan Plain. With 2007 VCA Drama Graduates. VCA School of Drama, 28 Dodds St, Southbank until June 9.

Hélène Cixous is one of France's most significant intellectuals, in that honourable European sense which comprehends the artist as a critical intellect, deeply engaged with the issues of her time and place. She is a writer who exceeds all possible categories: as a philosopher, rhetoritician, literary critic, scholar, novelist, poet and playwright, she has been influential far beyond the borders of France.

Like her contemporary Jacques Derrida, Cixous was born in Algeria, and her complex experience of colonisation and otherness there fed into the radical project of rethinking the Western cultural tradition that has been subsumed (and widely misunderstood) under the rubric of post-modernism. With thinkers like Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigaray, Catherine Clément and Monique Wittig, Cixous is one of the formative intellects behind contemporary feminism, focusing on the practice of l'écriture féminine (writing the feminine) as a means of challenging the patriarchal logic that construes women as Other. And her long collaboration with Ariane Mnouchkine and the Théâtre du Soleil is one of the most celebrated in Europe.

Despite her undoubted stature, Cixous's work is seldom performed here (even in book form, it can be difficult to find, and prohibitively expensive if it is available). The VCA offers a rare opportunity to see her work with a performance of her 1994 play The Perjured City, and offers a passionate realisation of a passionate work. The Perjured City is an unruly, unpredictable, fiendishly complex play, which takes full advantage of a poet's imaginative right to do, well, practically anything she damn well likes. Cixous is nothing if not excessive, and nothing if not liberating. If you're interested in the possibilities of theatrical language, textual and otherwise, this is not to be missed.

There's no doubt that this play presents unique challenges, to both artists and audiences. It's vast, with a cast of 23 playing 32 characters (plus a chorus), and it runs for more than four hours. It's a forceful reminder that French theatre has a very different political history to the English-speaking tradition; Cixous's theatre assumes itself to be a dynamic and vocal part of the polis, a site of literal as well as metaphorical revolution. In this play, the appeal to the audience is direct and visceral: we, who are citizens of this city, speak to you, also citizens of this city. We tell you of this wrong, and we ask you to act.

Sometimes, it must be said, we are told of this wrong at length, and the theatre turns into a mere debating hall; but Cixous is too much of a poet to languish in the halls of prose for very long. And she has a complex tale to relate. The play is based on the contaminated blood scandal in the mid-80s, when the French National Centre for Blood Tranfusions distributed blood supplies that it knew were contaminated with the HIV virus, infecting more than 4000 patients, including hundreds of children, with AIDS. When the scandal was brought to light in 1988, through a civil action brought by one of the victims, the resulting public disillusion was a major factor in the subsequent electoral defeat of the Socialist Mitterand Government.

The play weaves together two levels of reality, both enclosed in a self-consciously meta-theatrical play. This allows Cixous to illustrate, on the one hand, the cynicism of the realpolitick that permitted the tainted blood to be distributed in the first place (the justifications were largely economic) and the subsequent cover-up, and to draw a darkly pessimistic picture of the possibility of justice in a system that is inherently corrupt. On the other, she creates an imaginative universe in which justice is transcendently possible: the mother will be reunited with her dead children, suffering will cease, justice will be served. This double reality makes a drama that is simultaneously a cold political argument and a viscerally powerful emotional protest, without compromising the force of either. And it's also an aesthetic argument, literally building on the grave of Shakespeare to bring tragedy into the modern world. And, naturally, a feminist argument as well.

The play is set in a cemetary, the city of the dead, to which the grieving Mother (Joanna Curteis) retreats when she curses the city that will give her no justice for the meaningless deaths of her two sons. There she meets the gravedigger, who turns out to be Aeschylus (Benedict Hardie), who with Night (Ben Pfeiffer) are the two masters of ceremony, both observing and orchestrating the action. The Mother's grief and anger rouse the Furies, the monstrous divinities who avenge the killing of kin, from the slumber in which they have lain for 5000 years, since Athena subdued them at the end of the Orestian Trilogy. What follows is a playing out of the conflicts between the desires for justice and revenge.

The Furies not only represent maternal anger, but also the repressed feminine, roused from its Apollonian torpor. As Cixous says elsewhere:

When the "repressed" of their culture and their society returns, it's an explosive, utterly destructive, staggering return, with a force never yet unleashed and equal to the most forbidding of suppressions. For when the Phallic period comes to an end, women will have been either annihilated or borne up to the highest and most violent incandescence.

The Furies demand merciless revenge and destruction: blood for blood. The Mother, on the other hand, does not desire revenge, but seeks a more complex idea of justice: she wants acknowledgement and understanding from those who wronged her. But this is not a crime for which anyone feels personally responsible: in an echo of Hannah Arendt's "banality of evil", she finds that the corporate mentality which allowed the crime to be committed is hermetically sealed from any such humane stirrings of responsibility or conscience. At the same time, she is horrified when the Furies complacently demand their right to revenge themselves on the children of the wicked doctors.

So the Furies do not get their blood, nor the Mother her justice. The only winner is the proto-Fascist leader Forzza (Tim Potter), who waits out the scandal and its political fall-out, wins the election, and then uses his power to eliminate the very protest that he exploited to gain his position.

But Cixous here exploits the radical imagination to suggest another possibility. It's a possibility that exists in the future tense, and that lies in the kinetic energy that might be harnessed in the audience, and to which this play makes its direct appeal. It's an appeal that Cixous, too intelligent not to be aware of the manifest limitations of art in the face of reality, both articulates and argues against. And for all the cynicism that such an appeal might so easily prompt, it reminds you precisely why art is considered politically subsersive, and why repressive regimes are so keen to suppress and control it. Simply to utter the possibility of justice permits it to enter the realm of the real.

Kirsten von Bibra gives this complex, ambitious play a more than decent production, energised by a constant theatrical inventiveness and a passionate commitment from her cast. It doesn't always hit the mark - and here I'd say that often the problems are with the text as much as with the production - but when it does, it resonates deeply. It's highly stylised theatre that takes a few leaves from the dynamic, actor-centred theatre of Peter Brook, pulling in circus techniques like trapezes and stilts to extend the constant physical energy of the bodies on stage. Jeminah Reidy's set design is elegant and flexible - an abstracted circus ring, with red ropes and trapezes around its rim that recall the bloody theme of the play - and is complemented by Jessica Daly's costumes, which, like the set, are both simple and expressive, drawing on a range of influences from classical Greek clothing to vampire movies.

The performances are impressive: Cixous's language is Shakespearean in its richness and complexity, and no one fails its challenge. Heightened by Elizabeth Drake's score, the dialogue sometimes reaches a pitch that is almost operatic (in some scenes, literally so). At times the energy dips but, even so, I had no trouble sitting in the theatre - and concentrating hard, for this is language that demands all your attention - for that length of time. This is a true ensemble production, but mention must be given to Joanna Curteis, for her throbbingly contained, moving protrayal of the Mother, and to Benedict Hardie for his motley Aeschylus, who are on stage for almost the entire performance.

Some scenes are sheerly beautiful. The Mother's two dead sons, Daniel and Benjamin Ezekial (Ben Hjorth and Stuart Bowden) are bunraku-style puppets manipulated by the performers, and all the dialogue is sung in plainsong to the accompaniement of Phillip Glass-style piano music. The effect of the artifice is heartbreaking. I have often pondered the potency of puppets, how their use can release pure feeling in a way impossible for a human performer, but I am no closer to finding out why. The Furies, performed with an appropriate mixture of precision and excess by Meredith Penman, Anne-Louise Sarks and Joanne Trentini, are a cross between burlesque cabaret and Greek tragedy, at once grotesque, frightening, sexy and comic. And there is a visionary scene at the end which I hesitate to describe, as I hate to spoil the surprise, but which is breathtaking.

Picture: Ben Pfeiffer as Night in The Perjured City. Photo: Jeff Busby


Flloyd said...

Thank you Alison, for such a beautifully, intelligently written critique. I cannot get to Melbourne to see the production, however your critique (this is so much more than a 'review') has given me a great deal of pleasure, as well as provoking, challenging and informing me on a deep level. Thank you again!

Claire Downs said...

Wow. What a beautifully written review. I really look up to your writing.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Flloyd and Claire - thanks, that's very much appreciated.

Matthew said...

Excellent review, Alison. Again, it's a shame we didn't know we both at the play. I've just uploaded my review and, while I don't think it holds a candle to yours, it seems we agree on a number of points.

Geoff Hjorth said...

Thanks, Alison, for a great review. Saw the play last night and I am sorry that I hadn'tbread your review before I went. In fact, having read your review, I now might have to go again! As you point out the cast is large, and it is worth noting that notwithstanding the number, the toughest critic would be hard pressed to find a performance that struck a wrong note.

Anonymous said...

Nice comment... Dad. (No use denying it, there aren't that many Hjorths around).

Bless the internet for its lack of ageism (and opportunities for nepotism...?).

On a more serious note, thanks both Alison and Matt for your erudite and considerate reviews. Having been largely on the audient's/critic's side of the dialogue up to this point, I realise now just how crucial this discourse is for the maker. It is so important, challenging and invigorating to have your work articulated back to you by minds and hearts that have actively engaged with it.

As Matt said, this is a show that really makes demands of the audience, and the first demand it makes is that the audient engages - that it sits forward, listens, and brings something of itself into a relationship with the work. This show is teaching me more and more the difficulty contemporary audiences have with this demand, and the concomitant difficulty for the performer - how to continue the work in the moment of performance, despite a palpable lack of engagement. I think, particularly given this climate, it is this *choice* to engage that is the critic's greatest responsibility - whatever the fruits of that engagement end up being. The critic is a leader not only in their knowledge of the artform and their examination of the work but, perhaps just as importantly, a leader 'by example'. A critic says "here I am, I have come to see this work, I bring myself to it and meet it - show me/tell me/hit me with what you've got to say".

The critic says "I'm all ears". And in a play where language attempts backflips in order to bring the audience into an engagement with ideas, what more could we ask of an audience? One might say what less could we ask; that this is the very least we should expect; sadly this is not the case.

So thank you both for your leadership in critical engagement (gosh, sounds positively militaristic... perhaps our contemporary arts scene could appropriately be imagined in terms of vanguards, (wo)manning the barricades, etc.). I am beginning to understand the intrinsic value of it from the 'other side' of the fence.

Ben H.

Alison Croggon said...

It's my pleasure, Ben, especially when work is as rewarding as this show. Thanks too for your thoughts; one always hopes for open and rich dialogue. It's been missing in the city for a long time, to all our losses, and for me it's wonderful to hear other voices like yours and Matt's entering the discourse. And it's literally en-couraging for me when I see brave work: it reminds me what I'm here for.

Scott Crozier said...

I've been lucky enough to see some important epic, sweeping theatre in the recent past - Seven Streams of the River Ota and Cloudstreet to name two - and I now add The Prejured City to that list. What haunting beauty. Alison, thank you for articulating what I felt. It was mor especial for me seeing two very talented past students in the cast. The performance needs to be seen and considering this is an election year for us, the reverberations should be felt in many more places than just Melbourne!