Review: The Quivering ~ theatre notes

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Review: The Quivering

The Quivering: A Matter of Life and Death, devised by the cast and director. Directed by Nikki Heywood, dramaturgy by Virginia Baxter, set design by John Levery, video by Suzon Fuks, lighting design Andrew Meadows, sound design by Brett Collery. With Dawn Albinger, Scotia Monkivitch and Julie Robson. SacredCOW @ La Mama Courthouse until July 22.

Robert Frost famously denounced the writing of free verse as being like "playing tennis with the net down". But, as any fule no, it's actually very difficult to write free verse. To keep the poetic line from slackening into what harrumphers denounce as "chopped-up prose" requires considerable metrical and intellectual inventiveness: you need an acute ear for rhythmic variation as well as a solid sense of linguistic drama. This is why Ezra Pound is a genius, despite his shonky political views, and Patrick McCauley isn't.

The same factors apply to theatre that eschews narrative. Without the formal convention of a plot-line to carry them over longueurs, devisors have to work very hard to keep an audience interested. (And sometimes, no matter how hard they work, individual audients are not prepared to go there - but that's another issue). What this kind of theatre permits - as in, for example, the extraordinary theatre of Romeo Castellucci - is an unmediated intensity, untamed by the closures that narrative often (but not always) provides. It demands accuracy, intellectual suppleness, intense commitment and, most of all, the quality that Peter Brook claims is the root of all theatre, contrast.

One of the risks of dropping conventions in order to invent one's own is - strangely enough - cliche. If the subtext that is thereby lifted to the surface (rather than basking beneath the ripples of story) is too simplistic, the result can seem all too obvious. And The Quivering - a meditation on the moment of death devised and performed by Brisbane company SacredCOW - falls right into this trap. It has a few extraordinary moments: the heart quickens, the eye is delighted, the skin is goosebumped. But sadly, these moments emerge like plums in a bowl of cold porridge.

The Quivering rewrites the myth of the Sirens, the beautiful women who lured sailors to their deaths in the Odyssey. Here they become guides through the moment of dying, the transition between life and death, and absorb the traditional women's tasks of laying out and lamenting the dead. The Sirens - who, being three, also evoke the Fates and the Muses - are imagined as three waitresses in an outback roadhouse, Maureen (Julie Robson), Sharelle (Dawn Albinger) and Singrid (Scotia Monkivitch), who play cards, take orders and, well, wait, in between enacting the process of death.

The show is structured in 16 parts, which allows me to work out that I liked exactly a quarter of it. I thought four parts - the circular beginning and ending,"Monster and Illusions" and "The Fall: Part 2" - were simply astonishing: here the performances sparked alive and the theatre reached into the truly mythic, integrating its various elements to create spectacular stage imagery. A large part of their beauty comes from Suzon Fuks' video projections, abstracted ripples of light and water or billowing flames, which play over the performers, making them seem like elemental spirits rather than human bodies.

Most of all, these moments were unexpected, creating the "perpetual slight surprise" that is as important in theatre as it is in poetry. This was not the case in so much of this show, where I knew too often not only what movements were going to come next, but what words. (If I can do this, gentle reader, something is wrong - I'm bad at second-guessing plots in generic Hollwyood movies).

One problem is the performances, which, apart from Monkivitch, err on the side of caricature. Monkivitch maintains a physical and emotional accuracy throughout the show that at moments makes her riveting to watch, but the other performances often seemed blurred to me; they came across as well-meaning generalisations that, given the gestation of this show (it was first conceived in 2000) should have been polished to gleaming specifics.

But the main problems exist in the orchestration; that is, in Virginia Baxter's dramaturgy and Nikki Heywood's direction. There was far too much second-guessing the audience ("I know this isn't what you expect"), which is patronising, rather than challenging; and the direct address to the audience most often seemed ill-conceived, or even naff. But really, the deepest problem was in its use of repetition. Repetition either deadens or intensifies: the pleasure of repetitive intensification, as Bach knew well, is in its unexpected and subtle variants. But the repetition in The Quivering serves only to circle around an initial idea, neither expanding nor contradicting it.

The effect is to make the show's message - that if we are to be properly alive, we must first understand our own mortality - platitudinous, rather than profound. It's a shame, because its peak moments demonstrate what The Quivering could have been. As Nietszche said in his roundhouse condemnation of poets: "they have not thought deeply enough: therefore their feeling - has not plumbed the depths".


Matthew said...

Hm. Your review makes mine look hyperbolic, even press release-like. Uncritical and unobservant.

I liked the show, but that's not what I'm getting at. What I'm getting at is that there's nothing in my review that could be used to answer any of your criticisms. Nothing other than "I liked this", which is not an argument. If anything, it borders on being a puff-piece.

I've got to get my act together.

Alison Croggon said...

Your act looks pretty together from my end, Matt. And however you hone your critical skills, don't - for godsake - fillet out your enthusiasm (or your - quite rare, actually - ability to describe a show).

newtown honey said...

Hello Alison - Just a short, note to say thank you for coming to Newtown Honey, and importantly thank you for watching, formulating and publishing an opinion. It delighted and inspired all involved to read your review, as for us NH was a very exciting and personal production. With sincere regards to yourself and family. Curtis

Anonymous said...


Alison and I have crossed swords before, so it's good to see that Matthew and Alison are prepared to exchange views on a show we all recently saw --- "The Quivering" at La Mama. This being the case, I figured I might as well add my two cents.

First a disclaimer: performer/devisor Julie Robson is a colleague of mine at Edith Cowan Uni, so my views are, obviously, biased --- no more so, though, I would venture, than those of Matt and Alison. Our chief biases are what we do and do not like in theatre, more perhaps than any personal affilications.

In my case, I loved "The Quivering", though not as Matt seems to have largely because of its themes. It is indeed the issue of content (and of course how this is structured) that Alison has chiefly identified as not necessarily the chief appeal of this work.

Don't get me wrong --- the performers' musings on death, feminity, food, cooking, sex and the Sirens are charming and enormously appealing. They give one much to intellectually mull over or sensuously empathasize with. But in the end I must at least partially agree with Alison that "The Quivering" is not strongest as a coherent statement on death and passing.

On the contrary, much like the very characters depicted here, the strength of the work seems to me to come from its nature as a raggedy assemblage, a kind of rambling perpetual free-for-all (a nice metaphor for one's last thoughts perhaps) delivered in a fashion as beatified and perpetually awestruck as Julie's character typically appears throughout the work.

Ive argued with Alison about quite what one wants out of theatre before, and it's clear we want different things. Once when I interviewed Barrie Kosky's co-artistic director in Vienna (whose name eludes me today; 'scuse), he reminded me that the term for their theatre --- schauspielhaus --- simply referred to a "house / haus" within which "spiel / voice / text / words" were pronoucned.

As far as Im concerned, theatre is not and should not be a nicely rounded and shaped container for either narrative NOR the totally coherent and driving non-narrative, dense thematic message which Alison seems to imply it should be. The theatre is just a box for stuff --- any kind of stuff. Sacred Cow have taken this idea and run with it. "The Quivering" is packed with "stuff"; it is picaresque and episodic in the extreme. In many ways it's closer to cabaret than conventional 'theatre'. Things start, happen, then stop. Things are arrested before shuddering into motion again in a different mode. So what if it doesnt cohere? Who ever said life --- let alone art --- made sense, either emotionally or intellectually. Sure, I might concede that "The Quivering" errs a little on the side of indulgence and allowing the careening thoughts and desires of its protagonists to drive the work over and above any more overarching dramaturgical structure. But do I care? Do I mind? Hell no! Provided "the stuff" or filling packed into this little box is enough, provided the sound score, moments of desire and horror, play and foolishness, wisdom and absurdity have enough to keep me going moment to moment, that's all I really ask from theatre.

If others want more, they're welcome to it. But I think what has perhaps been missed here is that --- aside from the cabaret reference --- this is as much a piece of clown as it is a "text", this is as much an excuse for "business" as it is a "play" (in the conventional sense), and thus in the end, I must partially agree with Matthew that many of the criteria which Alison applies to this work are not the most relevent ones, nor do they really address to my mind what this work was trying to do and where its strengths lie.

But hell, any play that can get three critics exchanging blogs seems like a roaring success to me. All power to Sacred Cow and a big congrats from my current Perth home to La Mama for staging it. Here's hoping Im back soon for something equally tasty.

Jonathan Marshall
WA Acad of Performing Arts, Edith Cowan Uni
contributing editor, RealTime Australia

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Jonathan

Nice to see you back here! And thanks for the prod, I should have responded earlier. Apologies for the delay.

I quite agree, the brilliant thing about the blogosphere is the possibility of having room for several differing opinions. Conversation, at last. Matt is a sharp eye whom I respect. I just had a very different kind of evening.

To be honest, I don't have much to say in response to your comments about the work - just that my problem with The Quivering isn't that I want theatre to be "a nicely rounded and shaped container for either narrative NOR the totally coherent and driving non-narrative, dense thematic message". (And I don't know really if Castellucci, whom no doubt unfairly I hoisted up as an example of imagistic theatre here, can really be described as "coherent".) I don't think there's anything either/or about theatre, at all; those binaries are something I hope to escape from. Just that, for me, it didn't keep me going from moment to moment. I simply didn't have that involuntary engagement that I most deeply associate with a theatre (and art of any kind, actually). That involuntary engagement is what I work backwards from in writing reviews: if it happens, like when I saw the New York City Players, I'm prepared to undo all my preconceptions about art. If it doesn't happen, hey, I've only got the sensibility I've got.