Sydney conversations ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Sydney conversations

On Friday, TN flew out of a Melbourne where the skies were blue as a robin's egg, clear as lark's eye, etc etc etc, and journeyed along the coast to the twinkling harbour citadel, only to find that Melbourne's spring squalls were holidaying up north themselves. Reader, it was cold and grey and raining. This is not what this black-clad Melburnian expects of Sydney, that hedonist capital where even old ladies wear flowery bikini tops and lotos eaters loll around under pink umbrellas discussing the price of harbour views.

Sydneysiders themselves were mainly invisible. Perhaps they were participating in a crime wave in the outer suburbs: there can't have been any police officers left, since every security officer in town was issued with riot gear and posted to Walsh Bay to guard the shiny new water cannon against bands of marauding anarchists. And it was wise for the humble citizen to be wary: APEC turned out to be a parallel universe in which crossing the road for yum cha with your 11-year-old son was a sure sign that you were planning to assassinate the Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea.

But as theatericals know, the show must go on; and even APEC, the biggest - or at least, the most expensive - show in town couldn't stop the theatre. As soon as I arrived, flocks of emails advised me that I had to see Version 1.0's Deeply Offensive and Utterly Untrue. This was backed up by several individuals pressing my hand and urging the same thing. Alas, I was already booked for two shows and couldn't stay any longer, so I'm just hoping that this show will travel down to Melbourne.

I was officially up to see Belvoir St's much-praised production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, directed by Benedict Andrews, of which more in a month or so. And while I was there, being presently on a Shakespeare jag, I booked in to see the last night of the STC's A Midsummer Night's Dream, performed by the Actors Company at the swisho Sydney Theatre at Walsh Bay.

There was a more personal reason for seeing the Dream. Ever since I saw Dan Spielman in Daniel Keene's Half and Half at the Playbox in 2001, I have been waiting to see him play Puck, a role so obviously tuned to his talent that it seemed to me to amount to typecasting. And here was my chance. Before I discuss the play and sundry issues around it, let me say that it was worth the wait. I am not generally given to gushy statements, but lately something seems to have gone twang in my head: last week I rashly claimed that Luke Mullins was looking fair to be the best actor of his generation. Well, Dan Spielman is the other best actor of his generation.

More generally, I enjoyed this production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, directed by young UK director Edward Dick. Set in a neo-classical ruin floored by "dank earth", it eschews an easy prettiness, foregrounding the amoral wickedness of faerie. Here the mischief of the fairies has a cruel and uncanny edge: their heartlessness is by no means harmless.

The doubling of roles make much of the symmetries between the waking, rational Athenian world, ruled by Theseus (Brandon Burke) and Hippolyta, his captured Queen (Pamela Rabe), and the night-world of Oberon and Titania, the quarrelsome King and Queen of the Fairies played by the same actors. The mechanicals (also doubling as fairies) are the underworld of the aristocracy of Athens, the crudely comic mirrors of their desires.

Mainly the production tracked a process of disintegration and reformation; as the star-crossed lovers suffered under the irrationalities of primitive lusts, they became progressively more smirched by the earth of the stage floor, their costumes more ragged, until at last, in a highlight scene that signified the sane coming of dawn, they were cleansed by a shining shower of rain.

What gave this production its particular quality of enchantment was its choreography, by associate director Jane Gibson (also associate director at Cheek By Jowl), and the sound design, played live by composer Max Lyandvert. There was a lot of introductory ballet before a word was spoken, which made me feel a little impatient for the first 20 minutes or so; but after that, the energies began to focus: the stage became a site of restive, unpredictable movement, in which the transitory order of humans was disrupted by the fairies. The effect was as if eddies of wind were swirling chaotically across the set, transforming the world into a place of darker amoral passions and cruelties.

There are certainly criticisms to be made of the production - it struck me as a slightly woolly version of a Declan Donnellan show, lacking a wholly achieved sharpness of focus and metaphorical depth. But it's by no means a failure. On this point, I found myself in the interesting position of being at odds with many of the artists who made it.

This rather undermines the common idea that theatre artists are narcissistic monsters who are only interested in flattery. Frankly, my experience is generally the reverse of that; of course artists like to please, but any good artist is also highly self-critical. I was prepared for this, since I'd heard a number of negative reports from various sources about this show. It's no secret that this was a problematic rehearsal process after a difficult and demanding year - seven shows without a break - and Sydney is boiling with gossip about possible changes in the company's line-up next season.

So I was variously told that the design and concept of the production were unsuccessfully integrated; that the production did not sufficiently explore the psychological or intellectual depths of Shakespeare's play; that the performances were inadequate to the poetry of the text; that the strengths of the Actors Company concealed the problems with the production. There are varying degrees of justice in these criticisms, and none of them are baseless; but I began to feel that the general success I had perceived in the production had been lost in these particularities.

In fact, I came away from Sydney feeling slightly troubled. Perhaps it was simply, as another director said to me, that the company "had fallen out of love" with the show. But the negativity I encountered chimed with what seems to me, as an outsider, a surprisingly unenthusiastic view of the Actors Company in Sydney itself; more often than not, when speaking to Sydney people about the company, the response is critical. There's no doubt that the Actors Company has been facing a number of crises, including the real and abiding question of its purpose and vision. But I'm beginning to wonder if Sydney knows what a jewel it has in this extraordinary ensemble.

Part of this is no doubt the criticism that goes with an underfunded and often struggling arts sector looking enviously over its shoulder at those they perceive as fat cats, the false sense of competition fostered by an economy of lack. Some of it might simply be that it's now part of the theatrical furniture, and familiarity breeds contempt. But I am of the view that - to use terms I would rather avoid - a strong theatre culture depends, in great part, on having a strong mainstream. If the mainstream is vacuous, cynical, bereft of ideas and vision, then those who react against it will remain unchallenged by its achievements - to their detriment. It's no accident that many of our most interesting artists hone their skills in Europe, where mainstream theatre practice is diverse and high quality.

With a change of artistic leadership with the Blanchett-Upton team next year, it's fair to say that the STC is at an interesting point of its development. From TN's perspective, the Actors Company - the only full-time ensemble in this country - is one of the most exciting developments in mainstream theatre in recent years, a welcome exploration of artistic seriousness on stages which have too often been wholly concerned with fiscal survival. And while its existence is in no immediate danger - its funding has been confirmed until 2009 - it seems to me that there is a danger of passing over its achievements by wholly focusing on what is wrong, and thereby losing sight of its possibilities altogether.

By this I don't mean that criticisms are mistaken or wrong. After two years of near-constant performing, there is clearly a leadership crisis in the Actors Company, and the question of its artistic focus now seems urgent. But let's not, in the sound and fury, lose sight of what a fine thing it is to have it in the first place. As Berkeley says, to be is to be perceived; conversely, in Australia we have a sorry history of erasing what we have, simply by refusing to see it.

Picture: Dan Spielman as Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream, STC


Geoffrey said...

Ah yes! The myth of Sydney's climate is one that vanished in the seven years I lived there. It DOES get cold - very cold. In fact, as addicted as I am to comparing them, Sydney has been colder than Melbourne more often than not in the past few weeks.

And yes, I too hope that "Deeply Offensive ..." comes to Melbourne.

David Williams said...

'Deeply offensive...' isn't coming to Melbourne, unfortunately. But we will be touring to regional Victoria in June - Shepparton 5th June, Portland 10th June, Bendigo 13 June, and Horsham 18 June.