Review: The Temptation of St Anthony/The Tell-Tale Heart ~ theatre notes

Monday, October 15, 2007

Review: The Temptation of St Anthony/The Tell-Tale Heart

Melbourne International Arts Festival #1

The Temptation of St Anthony, from the novel by Gustave Flaubert. Direction, set design and lighting concept by Robert Wilson, music and libretto by Bernice Johnson Reagon. Costumes by Geoffrey Holder, lighting design by AJ Weisbard, sound design by Peter Cerone, music direction by Toshi Reagon. State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne. October 11. Until October 14.

The Tell-Tale Heart (after Edgar Allan Poe)
, adapted and directed by Barrie Kosky, performed by Martin Niedermair and Barrie Kosky. Design adapted by Anna Tregloan (set) and Paul Jackson (lighting) from original designs by Michael Zerz (set and lighting) and Alfred Mayerhofer (costume). Malthouse Theatre @ the Malthouse Workshop until October 20.

The band struck up, the lights blinked on, and the weather, which had hitherto smiled benignly on the fair city of Melbourne, invited Mr Rain and Ms Hail in for a party. Yes, it’s festival time, when it is traditional for Melbourne’s skies to snarl, and woolly longjohns under the petticoat are now de rigeur.

Fortunately for those of us shivering on the mean streets, the heart is warm, even if the flesh is goose-pimpled. MIAF artistic director Kristy Edmunds has struck the requisite wow factor.

Last year’s headline openers were, it must be said, a little patchy: the astounding theatrical mysteries of Romeo Castellucci’s Tragedia Endoginidia on the one hand were counterbalanced by a damply earnest version of 1984 from Tim Robbins’s Actors Gang on the other. As a frisson between events, it failed on every measure of joissance (a mixture of the erotic, the mystical and the political, if you’re wondering).

This year, the joissance was bouncing. Edmunds has set up a conversation between two visionary auteur directors, Robert Wilson and Barrie Kosky. Although both draw from major writers in the Western literary canon, they are a complete contrast in style and approach, and, ultimately, in their conceptions of theatre.

Robert Wilson’s middle name is “spectacle”. For years, this leading practitioner of avant garde theatre has been providing luscious sensual feasts for the eye.

Last year, Wilson’s elegant theatricalisation of traditional Indonesian epic, I La Galigo, was a major festival hit. This year he’s brought an operatic adaptation by Bernice Johnson Reagon of Gustave Flaubert’s magnificent obsession, The Temptation of St Anthony, a novel in play form that Flaubert rewrote three times and claimed was his “life’s work”.

Flaubert’s story of St Anthony’s dark night of the soul, as he is assailed in his search for truth by temptations of the flesh, mind and spirit, is definitely an oddity. Ezra Pound’s view of the novel was rather less sanguine than Flaubert's, and has a certain justness. “[Flaubert] was interested in certain questions now dead as mutton, because he lived in a certain period,” said Pound. “Fortunately he managed to bundle these matters into one or two books and keep them out of his work on contemporary subjects. I set it aside … as something which matters now only as archaeology.”

Johnson Reagon is the founder of the acapella group Sweet Honey in the Rock, and is a historian and venerable Civil Rights activist who works in the musical tradition of African-American gospel choirs. While you can see the thematic connection to Flaubert’s story, her soul-stirring rhythms don’t seem an immediate fit with Wilson’s cool, chic aesthetic; but in fact their warm immediacy, yin to Wilson's yang, do much to mitigate the distancing eye.

Drawing from spirituals and gospel can, however, induce a certain semantic confusion: when St Anthony is being tempted by the gifts of the Lord’s table, for instance, it suggests communal joy rather than any sense of gluttony. It’s hard to see what the Lord could possibly object to in anything so celebratory of Him.

As I followed the argument of Reagon Johnson’s libretto, I felt a certain wonder that the idea that religion is not the answer to every truth, or that there are contradictions in scripture that compromise its value as historical document, needed to be said quite so baldly. But then I remembered that the US has a president who claims that he invaded Iraq because God told him to.

Which is to say that, while I am not so convinced of the intellectual provenance of this show, I can see its contemporary aptness. But intellectual provenance is hardly the point here.

From the moment the performers enter the theatre in a slow hieratic procession to the show’s final ecstatic climax, Wilson’s stagecraft brings the State Theatre to radiant life. Johnson Reagon’s thrilling score embraces everything from gospel to African music to funk, and there’s the electrifying pleasure of hearing so many huge voices on stage at once, backed by Toshi Reagon’s admirably tight band.

This pleasure is heightened by the visual banquet of Wilson’s production. The costumes are gorgeous, and the simple neo-classical set, reminiscent of a church, is drenched in swathes of intense colour – azure, emerald, scarlet, gold.

And Wilson’s gift for breath-taking mise en scene is well in evidence. His masterly stage choreography is poised on what TS Eliot called “the still point of the turning world”: its potency emerges from stillness, just as its songs emerge from silence.

This maxim is, however, much more powerfully illustrated by Barrie Kosky’s brilliant adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, The Tell-Tale Heart, as a monologue performed by Martin Niedermair. Here silence and darkness are invitations into Poe’s uniquely psychological horror.

Where Wilson asks us to admire – and we do – Kosky demands something more intimate, more difficult and, dare I say, more profoundly theatrical. This is theatre that plays in the minds of the audience as much as it does on stage, that invites us to come on a voyage into our own subconscious. In a way that strikes me as particularly Jewish, it is theatre that appeals to the ear rather than the eye, to the intimacy of hearing rather than to the dissociation of sight.

But this isn’t to say that the show doesn’t also have its visual pleasures. Anna Tregloan’s minimal set, adapted from Michael Zerz's design for the original production at the Schauspielhaus in Vienna, is remarkably beautiful. The single stage element, aside from the sumptuous red curtain that greets us as we enter, is a vertiginous wooden staircase that reaches up into the dizzy heights of the workshop.

The performance takes place entirely on the staircase, and here the lighting – an elegantly effective design adapted by Paul Jackson from Zerz's lighting – is crucial. For most of the show, the majority of the stage is in shadow. At times, the only illumination is on Niedermair’s face.

Poe’s story, the confession of a murderer betrayed by his guilty conscience, is performed almost in its entirety, but Kosky’s fidelity to Poe goes deeper than mere attention to his words. He creates an entire psychological environment that enacts the true horror of Poe’s tormented imagination.

The show begins and ends with a long interval of total darkness (a rare thing in a theatre) which acts as a liminal state, a crossing of a threshold into a different imaginative world. The text is interleaved with songs by Henry Purcell and Hugo Wolf, the accompaniment played live by Kosky himself, and the contrast between the yearning expressed in this sheerly beautiful music and the bleak story creates an unsettling poignancy.

Martin Niedermair gives an exemplary display of an actor’s physical and emotional expressiveness: here utterance is a struggle articulated by his entire body. He gives each word – and each silence between each word – a darkly gleaming emphasis that is completely compelling. And there is a totally unforgettable moment - the emotional climax of the show - when I swear he becomes the physical embodiment of a painting by Francis Bacon.

As Poe’s nameless hero, he achieves a poise between vanity and self-disgust that is sometimes genuinely comic. But what he communicates with disturbing accuracy is the dismaying self-delusion of madness.

The whole production features a restraint, even a sense of discretion, that intensifies its stark psychological realism. This is Poe naked, stripped of the rags of Gothic melodrama, and it is a terrifying vision.

Pictures: Top, Robert Wilson's The Temptation of St Anthony; bottom, Martin Niedermair in The Tell-Tale Heart.

A shorter version of this review appears in today's Australian.


xofro said...

I heartily agree with your review of Telltale Heart - definitely one of the Festival highlights for me. But I found The Temptation of St Anthony profoundly disappointing, especially as I had been swept away by last year's Wilson I La Galigo. The pretty music and the pretty lighting made just bearable a long theatrical wallpaper experience, where enthusiasm didn't compensate for unilluminating naivety.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Xofro (Xofro?) And welcome. I totally see your point about Wilson. I was still pretty much overwhelmed for two hours. And even afterwards, when the whole thing slipped totally out of my mind (as, in fact, I La Galigo did too) I still couldn't deny that I totally enjoyed being there. Signs of irredeemable shallowness on my part, I expect: I can enjoy spectacle, when it's done as well as this. But Kosky's show was for my money a vastly superior theatre event.