Review: Thom Pain/The Eisteddfod ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Review: Thom Pain/The Eisteddfod

Thom Pain (Based on Nothing) by Will Eno, directed by Julian Meyrick. Lighting by Kerry Saxby, design consultant Meredith Rogers. With Neil Pigot. Melbourne Theatre Company @ the Beckett Theatre, CUB Malthouse, until August 11. Bookings: 1300 136 166.

The Eisteddfod, by Lally Katz, directed by Chris Kohn. Design by Adam Gardnir, lighting design by Richard Vabre, sound by Jethro Woodward. With Luke Mullins and Katherine Tonkin. Stuck Pigs Squealing @ the Tower Theatre, CUB, produced by Malthouse Theatre, until July 29. Bookings: 9685 5111

It’s a common idea that if a work is “intellectual” or “cutting edge”, it must be cold and emotionless, a thing of steel and ice that is above the messy, smelly business of the human heart. Conversely, it’s assumed that anything with feeling can’t also be “intellectual”. Feeling and intelligence, so this logic runs, are opposites, and an excess of one means an inevitable lack of the other.

This weird binary has long puzzled me. For one thing, it’s so manifestly untrue: writers like Edward Said, Robert Musil or Hélène Cixous show that the intellect is in fact an instrument of passion. Far from being incompatible opposites, I think that feeling and intelligence are both required to articulate the process of consciousness. Particularly, it seems to me, in works of art.

Anyway, that is a long and complex argument, and I should drag myself to the matter to hand. These ruminations occurred after seeing Thom Pain (Based on Nothing) and The Eisteddfod, both now on at the CUB Malthouse. I suppose they both might be placed under the deathly rubric of “cutting edge” art, which is to say that they don’t obey conventional ideas of narrative or dramatic structure. Both, in this sense, are experimental (another useless term, since art is, strictly speaking, always experimental, unless it is dead).

But what strikes me primarily about both plays is that they are, fundamentally and crucially, about love. And loneliness. And all those other human, messy things.

Thom Pain is an MTC show, and it’s frankly brilliant to see them programming writing of this quality from the more innovative edge of contemporary Amercian writing. It’s had an interesting history, considering Will Eno is a New Yorker - this play premiered at the 2004 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where it won a swag of awards, and transferred to a successful season in London before finally opening in New York. It was ultimately shortlisted for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize.

It makes me wonder what American theatre is thinking, if a work as funny, smart and moving as this has to prove itself in the British provinces before it gets a look at an American stage. It’s really a poem: a highly theatrical poem which owes much to the plays of Edward Albee and Thornton Wilder. But the writer who kept insisting himself as I watched it was the 1950s New York poet, Frank O’Hara. It’s not so much style – though both O’Hara and Eno have plenty of that, and Eno shares O’Hara’s wit and lyrical gift – as sensibility. Like O’Hara, Eno is a writer who perceives human fragility and imperfection with a sceptical but wholly unironic compassion.

There is much here of sheer writerly intelligence, that witty play of allusion and metaphor that (sometimes rightly) is often taken as an evasion of feeling. But, as its name suggests, this show is actually about human pain. The comedy is often cruel (as comedy almost always is), but it functions as a kind of tact which permits us to see this fictional character’s vulnerability and, through his, our own. In its honest examination of the emotional cauterisation of trauma, it is very moving; but it is not – save for a misstep at the end, a direct plea to the audience that somehow lets us off the hook – in the least sentimental.

In the figure of Thom Pain, Eno has created a fragmented Everyman, a damaged soul ill at ease in his mortal body. Thom Pain – performed with a mixture of superbly nuanced restraint and sheer front by Neil Pigot – recounts for us, in an ad hoc, disorderly manner, the injuries that have marked his life. His wounds are at once absurd and tragic – from the electrocution of his beloved childhood dog to his broken love affair (as he sums it up, in a particularly beautiful line, "I disappeared in her and she, wondering where I went, left.")

He is, in fact, an unexpectedly gentle reflection of our own unacknowledged pain, the shaping hurts that damage us for the rest of our lives. “When did your childhood end?” he asks. “How badly did you get hurt, when you did, when you were this little, when you were this wee little hurtable thing, nothing but big eyes, a heart, a few hundred words?” And, responding almost involuntarily to this direct question, we find out with a pang of memory that yes, the loss of innocence happens to all of us.

Julian Meyrick directs with a light hand: it is given a stripped, bare production, forgoing any sense of theatrical illusion in order to focus attention on the script and the performer. The set is a bare stage, marked out in squares, with a life-size cardboard image of Pigot in one back corner, and a chair in another. Neil Pigot realises his fractured character with subtlety, comic chutzpah and heartbreaking candour. He stands before us, slightly dishevelled, in a plain suit and glasses, and delivers a painfully funny stand-up routine (complete with a raffle that never actually occurs) that works off our own sense of discomfort.

As he makes clear at one point, Thom Pain (a wry spin, I presume, on the famous American revolutionary Tom Paine) is a contemporary version of Tom O’Bedlam, a truly urban “unaccommodated man” who, for all his suit and tie, is no more than “a poor bare, forked animal”. If this play has a message - not that a message is the point - it is simply that those wounds never actually heal, and we cannot live hiding from our own anguish. “Isn't it wonderful,” says Pain, with deceptive blandness, “how we never recover?"

The unhealable wounds of childhood is also an abiding theme of The Eisteddfod, Lally Katz’s disturbingly funny fantasy of suburban childhood. I saw its first full production at the Store Room three years ago, my first experience of Stuck Pigs Squealing, and was impressed. The Malthouse is now giving it a welcome remount in the Tower.

Since its first outing, The Eisteddfod has had seasons at the PS122 and Ontological-Hysterical Theatre in New York and Belvoir St in Sydney, and a cast change (Katherine Tonkin takes the role of Gerture, originally played by Jessamy Dyer). But it remains as fresh as ever, a darkly comic meditation on the perversities of longing, loneliness, pain and erotic love.

Gerture and Abalone (Luke Mullins) are brother and sister, living together, after the bizarre death of their parents, in a claustrophobically destructive relationship of mutual need and resentment. Their longings are played out through various fantasies – Gerture’s masochistic relationship with a sadistic lover, Ian, or their parents’ dysfunctional marriage – as Abalone rehearses the part of Macbeth for an upcoming eisteddfod, in which he plans to unleash his true genius on a dazzled world.

Lally Katz is a true original, and so confounds all attempts at categorisation. She is not quite like any writer I have encountered, although her work calls up shades of Pirandello, Cocteau, Chekhov and a bunch of other people. There is an anarchy in its core which means that anything might happen, a perilous sense that the whole might disintegrate into total nonsense: but it never does, because also at work is an unobtrusively steely discipline and a very sharp wit.

She’s well served by her performers, who match Katz’s precision and wit as they scramble over Adam Gardnir’s ingeniously claustrophobic set. Mullins’ performance is a sheer joy, and often simply hilarious, as he metamorphoses between Gerture’s brutish lover, his own father, a Sean Connery-inspired Macbeth and the vulnerable, jealous persona of Abalone himself. Tonkin is a perfect foil as the alienated Gerture, the victim of every male she encounters, who finally reaches out and discovers her own freedom.

Calling on my frustratingly imperfect memory (I’ll read my earlier review later) it seems to me that Chris Kohn’s production is, unsurprisingly, a highly polished version of what I saw three years ago. Certain details – a puppet, a balaclava – have vanished, and the play itself somehow seems cleaner and more focused, perfectly complemented by Jethro Woodward’s unobtrusive but beautifully textured soundscape. And while its humour always emerged from a dark place, and the violence in the centre of Gerture’s and Abalone’s childish games was always close to the surface, this time I was struck most forcibly by its sadness.

I think this production has grown in depth: it was always a play of brilliant surfaces, but now those surfaces open to unsettling abysses, and the final dialogue, a meditation on a pathetic suicide, resonates with an acute and haunting melancholy. It’s a wonderful piece by some of our most unfairly talented young artists. Miss it at your peril.

Picture: Luke Mullins and Katherine Tonkin, The Eisteddfod

A version of my review of Thom Pain appeared in Monday's Australian. Weblink if and when one appears on the site.


Art said...

Hi Alison,

I completely agree with your point about Thom Pain. Nice to see you can put it so eloquently.

When I reviewed it last year:

I said the following:

"But aside from the structure, there is even more to discover about this play. Given much of the talk around our theatrical blogosphere regarding experimentation and provocation, it was interesting to see that a play considered to be a very fringey and confrontational work, would have such a big, shaggy, lovable-mutt heart at its center."

Chris said...

One man's "big, shaggy, lovable-mutt heart" is another man's "poorly thought-out bird" with "burned open" eyes and "blistered off" paws.

Alison Croggon said...

Ah man, you gotta work on those ears of yours, Chris. Shame about the end, which after all that delicate balance hurt mine - but poorly thought out? What do you mean by that?

Alison Croggon said...

Hey Chris, rereading this in the cold light of dawn, I think I mistook your meaning here. I thought you were being a smartypants, quoting the play to diss it. For the record, I didn't see a loveable shaggy mutt either...

naive theatre goer said...

Seeing these two plays so positively compared and reviewed together, it felt strange that I felt so similarly about one and so differently about the other. I saw them on consecutive nights, "The Eisteddfod" on the first night, "Thom Pain" on the second. I found "Thom Pain" intelligent, moving, funny, edgy, unsettling. It had occasional flat spots and I could see why it might not be something that everyone would like but I liked it as much as anything I've seen in recent months. By contrast I was bored stiff by "The Eisteddfod", which I had seen the previous night. I found it superficial and contrived in its treatment of anything serious, its humor bordering on adolescent, e.g., while I can imagine contexts where having the first prize being a one-way ticket to Moscow would be either being very funny or quite moving, it just seemed puerile in this play, like some 15yo trying to be clever and funny. This is not a criticism of the acting or of the staging, which I thought were excellent and managed to salvage the play sufficiently to make it watchable albeit dull.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi NTG - I guess it's one of the miracles of theatre going, that two people can go and see exactly the same show - even exactly the same performance - and come out with wildly differing responses. (Watch me and Chris Boyd!) Despite a touching faith in my own experience, I have to confess that I don't believe anyone - even me - is "right". But then, it's not about being "right".

Chris said...

Comparing the electrocuted dog to a poorly thought-out bird was one of my fave parts of Thom Pain. (Another was the line which you quote: "I disappeared in her and she, wondering where I went, left." Youch!)

I liked and admired TP for much the same reasons as you, Alison. (I'm still drumming my fingers waiting for my review to hit the presses!) But I fear Eno's play will have a very short shelf life.

It's no Godot or even a Stretch of the Imagination. (And, no, I haven't seen either of the two new Stretches that opened at HQ this week. Can't wait to see how it scrapes up.)

Kohn never fails to amaze me. Three years on, The Eisteddfod was like a completely new play. I recognised the set and some of the lines, but... it was if I was seeing it for the first time. Again!

Matthew said...

Fine reviews, Ms. C. It's a shame I didn't get to see Thom Pain. Meanwhile, my review of The Eisteddfod is now up as well.