Review: Letters from Animals ~ theatre notes

Monday, November 19, 2007

Review: Letters from Animals

Letters from Animals by Kit Lazaroo, directed by Jane Woollard. Design by Amanda Johnson, lighting design by Bronwyn Pringle, sound design by Colin James and Jane Woollard. With Glynis Angell, Georgina Capper and HaiHa Le. Here Theatre and Store Room Theatre Workshop until November 25. Bookings: 9481 8496

Kit Lazaroo, who’s been quietly gathering plaudits and prizes since 2003, has been sitting in my mental filing cabinet with the stamp “must investigate” for some time now. Big red stars in texta were drawn on the file after the sell-out season of her play Asylum at La Mama last year, of which much praise trickled Williamstown-wards. Well, I might be slow, but I get there in the end.

It’s hard to know where to begin with Letters from Animals, now on at the Store Room in a simple but beautifully realised production. It’s much more difficult to write about than it is to see; it's a delicate, complex work that can seem merely whimsical, when in fact a bleak and uncompromising intelligence runs through it like a steel rod. Perhaps it’s an indication of its richness that this play prompts comparisons in so many directions.

Lazaroo is one of a number of noteworthy new playwrights presently enlivening Melbourne’s stages (others include Lally Katz and Ross Mueller), although her imaginative diction also reminds me of Sam Sejavka, who has been writing since the 1980s. And these writers have something in common with others further afield, people like Britain’s Philip Ridley or Germany’s Marius von Mayenburg.

For all their variousness, these playwrights reflect a sensibility that seems to me quite particular and of our time, but I’m sniffing: I’m not quite sure how. I suspect it's partly to do with a certain formal playfulness, a post-television consciousness that returns to the basics and throws them up in the air for questioning; but they also have an underlying darkness, an uneasiness that reflects contemporary anxieties and uncertainties. All of them approach the world elliptically, avoiding the easy statement, the play-as-message; but that can be said of every serious artist. And certainly, all of them are writers who understand the inherent poetic of the theatre.

Letters from Animals is several things. It’s a sorrowful and absurdly comic fable on memory and forgetting; a bleak warning about stupidity, greed and treachery; a satire on bureacractic oppression; and a lament of considerable lyric power. One of the admirable things about it is how it keeps so many things in play at once, so nothing ever quite comes to rest on a conclusion.

It's set in an imagined future, in a world in which animals no longer exist. This is a world destroyed by pollution and global warming, flooded with poisonous water and “sludge”. The only living things on earth are human beings. Or, more precisely, women: there seem to be no men at all. No doubt they have mutated out of existence thanks to the oestregen in the water and perhaps the women all reproduce by parthonogenesis: the playwright doesn’t say. Every other living thing has been eradicated, as harbingers of disease and uncleanliness from the "Days of Filth".

Queenie (Glynis Angell) is a former scientist living on the margins of society, who is attempting to restore the animal world from the few fragments – biological and semantic – that are left. This is subversive work in a world run by the sinister and faceless Developer; here people are controlled by regular inoculations which wipe their minds clean of memories and dreams and guard them against the possibility of remorse. Queenie is being investigated by the bureaucrat Shelley (Georgina Capper), who sends the young and ambitious Gretel (HaiHa Le) to spy on her activities.

In the meantime, the animals themselves – in the form of a Rat, a Vulture and a Cockroach – are demanding their return, perhaps even planning a revolution. It is never clear whether the animals exist independently or as alter-egos of the three characters; in the oneiric logic of this play, they are both. And, being peculiarly literary animals, they are sending letters to the women, asking to be remembered, to be restored, to be mourned.

Most of all, this is a play about language: the extinction of our fellow creatures is reflected by a linguistic and, crucially, an emotional impoverishment. As we lose their names, their descriptions, so we lose the ability to understand ourselves. Animals are everything that escape human order and human law; but they are also in us, in our animal selves, and with us. In the terrible future imagined here, they need us. Or is it simply our need speaking through the memory numbed by their absence? As the animals say in one of the letters that mysteriously haunt the bureaucrat Shelley:

Unaccustomed as I am to putting pen to paper. I find myself in need of your assistance. I trust you haven’t forgotten me. I cut your foot once when you went swimming. You looked through the boards of the jetty and watched me push against the current. I was in a cage at the zoo. I lived under the roof of your house. I ate food from your bin. You saw me resting in the mud. You caught me in a glass jar and put me on a windowsill. I fell out of a tree when the sun was hot and spat at your feet. You kept me in a shoebox under your bed and fed me the wrong leaves until I died. Don’t forget me. Bring me back. Speak my name.

Balancing the comedy, pathos and mystery of a play like this is not an easy ask, even in the best of circumstances, let alone in the confines of the Store Room. Here Theatre pulls it off admirably. After the theatrical excesses of The Madwoman of Chaillot two nights before, it was an inexpressible relief to be reminded that it really is true about two planks and a passion.

What counts most in making this imaginative world are the performances, and all three actors are equal to the task. Georgina Capper in particular, in the double role of the disintegrating bureaucrat Shelley and the French Vulture, is an actor I want to see more of. Director Jane Woollard deftly evokes Lazaroo's elliptical realities with the help of a lot of smoke, Bronwyn Pringle’s ingenious lighting, several buckets and an evocative sound design.

It’s an exemplary demonstration of how theatre can be political and contemporary without being didactic or simplistic. In short, it rocks.

Picture: Glynis Angell and HaiHa Le in Letters from Animals.


J-Lo said...

Hi TN,

Sounds like I missed a good one .... slightly off-topic, but was talking about 'political' theatre with a friend recently, and the standard off-the-cuff observation was made re: a liberal/left bias in modern drama -

which got me thinking, are there any 'well-regarded' modern plays consciously written from a thoughtful conservative point of view?

[Sorry if too off-topic!]

Alison Croggon said...

Hi J-Lo - Tom Stoppard, David Mamet and Noel Coward have been doing the traps. I'm sure there are plenty of others. And musicals are practically wall-to-wall conservative, which is no doubt why they're so enthusiastically supported by the Pratts. From another point of view, you could call an awful lot of consciously left-wing theatre here "conservative" as well (I do) in that so much of it actually is about reinforcing a privileged middle class status quo.

The problem with so many of these conversations is what left and right wing and radical and conservative actually mean... certainly not what they meant 50 years ago. What Liberal means these days is practically unrecognisable to my father, a dyed-in-the-wool Liberal voter all his life who shocked me by voting Labour in the State election. A mining engineer, a farmer and an old-fashioned Liberal, he's deeply concerned about global warming (like a lot of his mining friends, he understands the science) and alarmed by aggressive war mongering, so he's in a quandary; he can't bring himself to vote for Howard. And Labour these days does look rather like what used to be called Liberal. Eco-politics used to be a conservative thing rather than a left wing concern (radicalism was all about technology and modernity). And so on. Interesting times.

J-Lo said...

Cheers TN - and yeah, does depend on the 'starting assumptions', because there are plenty of theatre practitioners that a 'radical' would consider 'conservative', but who would be dismissed as a 'wet liberal' by a neo-con!

I think this is why it struck me as an interesting question - what values would a 'serious' conservative explore/affirm on the stage . . .

J-Lo said...

D'oh! - sorry for not picking up your previous posts on this very topic [More politics] and [Playwright as social symptom] . . .

Anonymous said...

Noel Coward's works weren't considered very conservative by his contemporaries, but I suppose after many years it has become a standard of the repertory theatre cycle, what with the refined Received Pronounciation English accents, dinner suits and celebration of the upper-class lifestyle. It is interesting how both he and Oscar Wilde, who were both homosexual and somewhat risqué in their times, have become so embraced by theatre "conservatives" and toffs these days.

On a completely different topic, it seems a pity to me that Letters from Animals ends on Sunday, considering I am coming down from Brisbane on Monday to Melbourne for a week. I have been hunting for theatre and performance works to see whilst I'm there, and there doesn't seem to be much happening. So far I am going to Spamalot and something at La Mama (haven't decided what). Is there anything else that you can suggest, Alison? I value your opinion.


Jana said...

Alison, your favourite theatre blogger & my exhausted-but-enthusiastic self will be seeing Letters from Animals based on this review only. I'm particularly interested since the epiphany I've had last year, when uni required me to walk through the Melbourne Zoo constantly aware of the animal gaze. (Our base reading was John Berger's hugely influential text Why look at animals?, which seems like a useful reference to the play as well.) Berger argues that, when a person regards an animal, a power is ascribed to it. But, while between two human beings the existence of languages enables one to confirm the existence of the other, the abyss between the human and the animal is never crossed. The animal, thus, becomes the ultimate Other, ascribed with its own, un-human power.

Anna, if I may offer a suggestion, Malthouse theatre will be showing A large attendance in the antechamber, apparently excellent, and also Lucy Guerin's Aether. The former might still have tickets available; the latter may be a dance, but a whole bunch of us dance know-nothings regularly attend Lucy's shows. Sappho will still be on at the Stork Hotel. Other venues you may want to check are Store Room and fortyfivedownstairs.

Alison Croggon said...

I hope you enjoy it, Jana - I love Berger, but haven't read that book. And a good raft of suggestions.

Anna, it's always perilous recommending work unseen, but I did see Brian Lipson's show - A Large Attendance - last night, and loved it; though I believe the season is pretty well booked out. Might be worth a query though, you never know. And Aether is marked "must see". Otherwise, Eleventh Hour opens next week with a new version of Othello: they're always worth looking at, even if I don't always agree with what they do, but I'm sure they'd have an interesting take on Shakespeare and they do beautiful productions. And Red Stitch has Motortown opening this Friday, which is a British play I'm very interested in seeing. At La Mama, the shows to see are apparently The Devil In Me and the Kreutzer Sonata, which I'm not sure I'll make, so I'd be glad to hear any responses...

Anonymous said...

don't forget brindabella at the malthouse too...if you love gayness, reccomended!